Although Amiel sometimes seems less a fully realized character than a projection of Pearl's loneliness and need, the particular strength of this haunting story is Pearl's motivation to tell it. She seeks not to excuse but to understand and take responsibility for her actions.
The Washington Post
McNeal's first solo novel, having written several with her husband, Tom, is a story of illicit romance set against the backdrop of the wildfires that ravaged California in October 2007. McNeal often refers to the coming destruction ("Six months from this day, a fire would leap from east to west, from Rainbow to Fallbrook. Eight lanes is a lot of concrete for a fire to cross"), amplifying the sense of loss--loss of family, loss of financial stability, loss of home, loss of love--that permeates the book. Fifteen-year-old Pearl and her mother are living at her Uncle Hoyt's guesthouse, after Pearl's father walked out on them. Enter Amiel de la Cruz Guerrero, an all-but-mute teenage migrant worker who Uncle Hoyt hires, and who instantly captivates Pearl. On some level, both parties are aware that their tentative romance is doomed, but it unfolds nonetheless, and as the fires sweep through, it turns to tragedy. Through the cross-cultural romance feels familiar, McNeal writes with a superior ear for dialogue and eye for detail, particularly in describing the verdant Californian wilds before they're reduced to ash. Ages 12–up. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"This debut solo effort after several collaborations with husband Tom McNeal (The Decoding of Lana Morris, 2007, etc.) stands out in the crowded coming-of-age field. The affecting narrative springs believably from the first-person thoughts of Pearl DeWitt as she recalls her 15th summer, when, entranced by a nearly mute, illegal Mexican migrant worker, the beautiful and gifted teenage Amiel, Pearl makes choices that lead to tragedy. Evocative language electrifies the scenes between the pair, as they develop a relationship both complicated and deepened by their limited verbal communication. Her warnings to readers of impending disaster amplify rather than diminish the impact of the misguided, wrenching decisions she makes when a raging wildfire sweeps through their rural California community. Besides her poignant relationship with Amiel, Pearl navigates her father’s recent abandonment of her and her mother and her complicated relationship with her cousin Robby as he blunderingly deals with his father’s apparent infidelity. Notable for well-drawn characters, an engaging plot and, especially, hauntingly beautiful language, this is an outstanding book."
-Kirkus Reviews, starred review
VOYA - Susan Allen
Pearl tells the story of her fifteenth summer. She is living with her mother in the guest house of her uncle's avocado ranch in Fallbrook, California. Her father has left them, and as her mother says, "The wolf is at the door." On a trip into Fallbrook, Pearl's attention is caught by an apparently mute young man who is looking for seasonal migrant work. She convinces her uncle to hire him. Pearl and Amiel's ensuing friendship is complicated by their limited verbal communication, as well as his illegal status. Her interest in the young worker is kept from her mother, her cousin Robby, and her best friend. Throughout Pearl's description of her summer there is a feeling of impending disaster. When the wildfires start and Pearl makes misplaced and life-changing decisions, the result is not a total surprise. The language is evocative. McNeal's description of Fallbrook's streets looking as though they were created by an Etch-A-Sketch allows the reader to clearly picture the layout of the city. The plot is engaging, and the characters are well developed. The reader comes to know a bit of the life of the illegal migrant worker and follow the coming of age of Pearl and her cousin Robby. This is a step above the usual coming-of-age novel. Reviewer: Susan Allen
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up—The catastrophic wildfires that ravaged Southern California in 2007 serve as the backdrop for this compelling story of a forbidden romance with tragic consequences. In the inland farming community of Fallbrook, 15-year-old Pearl tells her story through a leisurely voice. She deals with her parents' divorce; her cousin's anger at his father's suspected adultery; and, most significantly, her undeniable attraction to the alluring undocumented Mexican migrant worker Amiel, whose damaged vocal chords limit his speech but not his communication. Disaster is referred to throughout the narrative, filling readers with a sense of foreboding as Pearl's persistence overcomes Amiel's trepidation and the two draw together in an intense secret affair. All of this leads to a heart-pounding final act when the wildfire breaks out and Pearl must choose between family and romance, safety and uncertainty. The ramifications of the ill-fated decisions made by both Pearl and Amiel will surely spark strong discussion among readers. Both the plot and setting are grounded in rich, realistic detail; the author's love for the town of Fallbrook shines vividly through lyrical descriptions of avocado groves and orange blossoms. While Amiel remains a somewhat mysterious figure, Pearl's relationships with her family and friends are fully realized through her nostalgic recollections of simpler times. Drawn in by the appeal of clandestine love and looming disaster, teens will also be rewarded with much thought-provoking substance in this novel's complex characters and hauntingly ambiguous ending.—Allison Tran, Mission Viejo Library, CA
This debut solo effort after several collaborations with husband Tom McNeal (The Decoding of Lana Morris, 2007, etc.) stands out in the crowded coming-of-age field. The affecting narrative springs believably from the first-person thoughts of Pearl DeWitt as she recalls her 15th summer, when, entranced by a nearly mute, illegal Mexican migrant worker, the beautiful and gifted teenage Amiel, Pearl makes choices that lead to tragedy. Evocative language electrifies the scenes between the pair, as they develop a relationship both complicated and deepened by their limited verbal communication. Her warnings to readers of impending disaster amplify rather than diminish the impact of the misguided, wrenching decisions she makes when a raging wildfire sweeps through their rural California community. Besides her poignant relationship with Amiel, Pearl navigates her father's recent abandonment of her and her mother and her complicated relationship with her cousin Robby as he blunderingly deals with his father's apparent infidelity. Notable for well-drawn characters, an engaging plot and, especially, hauntingly beautiful language, this is an outstanding book. (Fiction. 12 & up)
Read an Excerpt
You wouldn't have noticed me before the fire unless you saw that my eyes, like a pair of socks chosen in the dark, don't match. One is blue and the other's brown, a genetic trait called heterochromia that I share with white cats, Catahoula hog dogs, and water buffaloes. My uncle Hoyt used to tell me, when I was little, that it meant I could see fairies and peaceful ghosts.
Then I met Amiel, and for six months it seemed true what he whispered in his damaged voice: Tú eres de dos mundos.
He was wrong, of course. You can only belong to one world at a time.
Now that he's gone, I try to see things when I'm alone. I put one hand over my blue eye, and I look south. With my brown eye I can see all the way to Mexico. I fly over freeways and tile roofs and malls and swimming pools. I cross the Sierra de Juárez Mountains and the Sea of Cortés to the place where Amiel was born, and I find the turquoise house with a red door. There are three chairs on the covered patio: one for him, one for me, and one for Uncle Hoyt. I tell myself the chairs are empty because we're not there yet. I watch for as long as I can and when my eye starts to water, I remove my hand.
Tomorrow, I'll look again.
People move to Fallbrook, California, because it's sunny 340 days of the year. They move here to grow petunias and marigolds and palms and cycads and cactus and self-propagating succulents and blood oranges and Meyer lemons and sweet limes and, above all, avocados. They move here to grow them, I should say, or to pick them for other people.
The houses are far apart when you're out in the hills, where trees and petunias grow in straight lines for profit, but once you get close to town, the streets look like something drawn by a child with an Etch A Sketch. No overall plan, no sidewalks, just driveways going off in crazy lines that lead to other driveways, where signs point to other dead-end streets named in Spanish or English with no particular theme--La Oreja Place sticking out of Rodeo Queen Drive leading to Tecolote Avenue, which if it were a sentence would read "the Ear on the Rodeo Queen of the Owl."
The ear and the queen and the owl are overrun with bougainvillea, ivy geraniums, tulip vines, and star jasmine, and that's what makes Fallbrook beautiful from a distance but tangled and confusing up close. It's a place where you can get lost no matter how long you've lived here, and there are only two roads out, something we didn't think much about before the fires began.
I first saw Amiel de la Cruz Guerrero on the corner of one of those Etch A Sketch streets, where Alvarado meets Stage Coach. I was fifteen and he was seventeen, although he told employers he was twenty. I was in my sophomore year of high school and my mother was substitute-teaching because my father had left us, and as my mother was constantly saying over the phone when she thought I wasn't listening, The wolf is at the door.
Every weekday morning at seven-thirty we'd leave my uncle's avocado ranch, where we were living free of rent (but not shame) in the guesthouse. My mother would drink her coffee in the car while she drove, and I would eat dry Corn Pops from a Tupperware bowl. Traffic would bunch up as all the cars going to all the schools had to inch through the same four-way stop at Alvarado and Stage Coach, one corner of which was a day-labor gathering site, meaning Mexican and Guatemalan men would stand around on the empty lot hoping to get a day's work digging trenches, moving furniture, hauling firewood, or picking fruit. The men stared intensely into every car, hoping to win you over before you stopped. Pick me, their faces said. The wolf is at the door.
But on this morning, the men had their backs to the road. Our car rolled slowly to the stop sign, going even slower than usual because the drivers of the cars were staring, too.
When we got close enough, I could see a lanky guy in a flannel shirt and work pants doing some sort of act. Fallbrook calls itself the Avocado Capital of the World, so you don't live here without seeing guys pick avocados. Mostly it's done on high ladders, but there's also this funky tool like a lacrosse stick with a six-foot handle. You stick the pole way up in the tree, hook the avocado, yank, then lower the pole so you can drop the fruit into a huge canvas bag you're wearing slung over one shoulder and across your chest. That's what Amiel was doing that morning, only without the pole, the sack, the tree, or the avocado.
"What in the world?" my mom asked.
"He's picking imaginary fruit," I said.
She snuck a look. "That's the oddest thing I've ever seen."
"Can we hire him?"
She snorted. It was our turn to dart through the intersection just as Amiel de la Cruz Guerrero touched his imaginary avocado-picking pole to a live electrical wire and received an imaginary jolt, which made all the day-labor guys laugh.
From the Hardcover edition.