. . . and now Miguel is really two books. One book is about Hispanic-American shepherds (or pastores) in early 1950s New Mexico, and the other is about Miguel Chavez growing up. By the end of the novel, the two books coalesce as the shepherding and coming-of-age stories begin to mirror each other.
Because shepherding, in this case, is a metaphor for growing up. When. . . and now Miguel begins, Miguel Chavez is twelve years old and doesn't know much about much of anything. He's awkward, asks the wrong questions, and has only one dream which for him is so powerful that he shares it with no one—he wants to go up into the Sangro de Cristo mountains for the summer pasturing of the sheep.
Well, he does tell San Ysidro, the patron saint of Los Cordovas. On San Ysidro Day, all the farmers and people from the prairies and surrounding area gather for a fiesta, and to pray to their patron saint for what they want personally. Miguel asks to be allowed to go with the grown men up the mountains this summer.
The thing about going up the mountains is that only the men do it. Long ago, Miguel's grandfather procured a permit from the United States government granting permission for the Chavez family to pasture their sheep in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the summer, thus sparing the sparse grass growing in the plains. It's a difficult journey, fit only for those who know what they're doing, and Miguel is still a child with few of the skills needed.
But then, after he prays to San Ysidro, unexpected things begin to happen, good and bad mixed up as he puts it. Good: Miguel's father tells him he'll be going into the mountains this year. Bad: Miguel gets to do this because Gabriel, the older brother he idolizes has been drafted into the army.
This turn of events provides Miguel and Gabriel a chance to talk and think, struggling to come to terms with what's happened, to understand why it must be, and to figure out their duties in light of everything. Miguel sees this as the beginning of his adult life, and the book ends with him, his father, and his uncles being absorbed into the mountains. And just like the mountains grow out of the desert, those who enter them are destined to leave men, however they enter.
Throughout. . . and now Miguel, Joseph Krumgold describes in great and fascinating detail the life and work of Latino shepherds at a time before widespread modernization. He talks about branding, shearing, pasturing, and many other aspects of a vocation and way of life now mostly vanished.
Krumgold's depictions of the transition from childhood to manhood are less compelling. In an attempt to capture preteen angst, he simply portrays Miguel as supremely awkward and even stupid. The boy can't ever say what he wants to say, but in the novel it seems more like he has nothing going on in his head than that he's struggling to form real thoughts with words. This doesn't provide a character kids can easily identify with; more likely, they'll just be frustrated by him.
Even less compelling is the solution Gabriel and Miguel come up with for all their existential questions at the book's close. The Chavez clan is clearly folk Catholic, but the reality the brothers conjure is a karmic deism that implies all one needs to do to get what they want is to give something in return. Apparently, this works on a cosmic scale, not just a human one.
In spite of these problems, Krumgold does an excellent job capturing the voice of one who speaks both English and Spanish and lives, in a way, between two worlds. Miguel narrates, and though he can't express himself to anyone in speech, he's able to capture subtle poetry and humor throughout.
And now, to imitate Miguel's double-mindedness: this is neither a book to seek out nor avoid. There's plenty of good here, especially the bits about shepherding, but there are some obvious worldview issues, and the depictions of childhood just fall kind of flat. As with so many Newbery Medal winners, this one is just okay.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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