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Beth AmosDespite the lingering stench, pervasive fear, seedy squalor, and sweltering heat, there is an encouraging seed of hope in Gary Soto's Buried Onions , a tale of faith and survival in an out-of-control world. The title comes from the main character's image of a giant onion lurking just beneath the city streets, a bulb of sadness whose vapors leak above ground and make people cry. And while there is plenty to cry over in this story of a young man trying to escape what appears to be his destiny, there is also much to cheer about and celebrate.
Nineteen-year-old Eddie has spent his entire life in a crime-ridden and run-down Mexican-American neighborhood in Fresno, California, where kids are as likely to graduate from juvie hall as they are from high school. Drugs, desperadoes, and death are the norm; the streets are mean and the facts of life as cruel as they come. Hoping to learn a trade and improve his chances in life, Eddie enrolls in City College, where he often watches the mortuary students who also attend the school, wondering if they have handled any of the dead friends and family members Eddie has recently lost to violence. When a lack of money forces Eddie to drop out, he hits the streets in search of income, soliciting odd jobs wherever he can and struggling to get by. Then his cousin Jesús is killed, the victim of a senseless and cold-blooded knifing. Scarred by grief and scared for his own future, Eddie resists the urgings of his mother, aunt, and several friends to find Jesús's killer and avenge his death as cultural tradition dictates.
When he finds a steady job with a kindhearted and generous man, Eddie focuses on toeing the line and staying out of trouble. But soon both fate and the vicious cycle of violence spin wildly out of control, threatening to pull Eddie into the vortex. When Eddie's employer entrusts him to drive his pickup to the dump, it is stolen when Eddie stops by his apartment for a few minutes on the way back. Shamed and afraid, Eddie doesn't return to his employer, though he does write a note to him trying to explain. Then salvation seems at hand when Eddie spies the stolen truck a few days later while walking along the streets with a friend. While the friend stands beside the truck to keep an eye on it, Eddie heads to a nearby pay phone to call his employer and tell him where the truck is. But by the time Eddie returns to the pickup, he finds his friend has been knifed and left in the street to die.
When Eddie hears a rumor that it may have been a trusted friend who killed Jesús, he begins to fear for his own life, a fear that soon becomes all too real. As the pressures and bad luck mount, Eddie's life becomes a daily battle for survival. The temptation to give in to crime, violence, and easy money is great. His tenacity in sticking to his values and beliefs, in holding up when the pressures are pushing him down, is a lesson in all that is wondrous and precious about humanity.
With his powerful imagery and thought-provoking situations, Soto paints a vivid and affecting picture. He mimics real life with adept skill, evoking Eddie's feelings of desperation and misery while also revealing the hard-to-see lifelines of hope. There are no easy answers here, and an ambiguous ending. But the underlying theme of not giving up, of striving to break free of life's damaging bonds, offers an invaluable and heartening lesson in both life and hope.