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Dark Water by Laura McNeal
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Dark Water

by Laura McNeal

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1381186,938 (3.76)10
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  1. 10
    Crossing the Wire by Will Hobbs (cammykitty)
    cammykitty: Latino kids love this book. It's a good, but not too scary, story about crossing the Mexican U.S. border.
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Pearl finds herself drawn into the world of a homeless migrant worker, and begins to lie and scheme up ways for them to secretly meet - despite knowing that no one would understand her feelings for a Mexican who is from a different social class, especially her mother. It was pretty good. A little unrealistic at times, but a good storyline. ( )
  ShouldIReadIt | Sep 26, 2014 |
Interesting story and beautiful prose but the pace was a bit too sluggish for me. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
This coming of age/young love story is a departure from the usual young adult fare. It utilizes the elemental forces of fire and water to help tell the story, enriching it for the reader by the multiple layers of meaning in the text. There is so much in this book to stimulate the mind of readers: the symbolism of the life-giving role of water, and of the dual nature of fire that simultaneously connotes death but also the opportunity for clear-cutting renewal; the question of what constitutes communication: must you use the same language? can methods of communication other than speech allow you to communicate just as well?; and the notion of home: is it where you live or with whom you love? Is it with whom you were placed by chance of birth, or with the person who can see into your very soul? And interwoven throughout is the theme of an everlasting love that admits no barriers, even when the odds of overcoming them are overwhelming.

Pearl DeWitt is fifteen, and has heterochromia: one eye is blue and the other is brown. This physical split is echoed by other aspects of her life: her father left because he could not abide her mother, and her mother cannot get past the anger she feels over the desertion. Pearl and her mother now have to live in a guest cottage on her Uncle’s ranch in Fallbrook, California, where Pearl feels like an outsider. Further, although Pearl is able to get by in the real world with her friends, she feels most comfortable in the dreamlike existence of fantasy and nature (so often fantastical): a world that her friends, now grown, no longer wish to inhabit. Pearl is, as Amiel - the 17-year-old boy she comes to love – says, de dos mundos - of two worlds.

Amiel is of two worlds as well. He is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who must constantly hide from authorities, but the California farmers near the border depend on him and others like him for labor. His native tongue is Spanish, but he also understands English. Ironically, he can hardly speak aloud in either language because of a tragic incident when he was young; nevertheless, he has learned to communicate in other ways. He wants to be with Pearl, but fears he would never be admitted to her world.

Pearl and Amiel slowly develop a relationship in spite of the many obstacles dividing them, until the Agua Prieta fire roars through their area. It destroys the not only bridges they were building between one another, but those connecting others to their lives as well.

Discussion: The motif of transmogrification permeates the story. Pearl’s mother has a tank full of caterpillars she nurtures, hoping to collect the silk one day from their cocoons. Pearl too is poised on the cusp of a transformation, hers analogous to the oyster: she struggles to come into her own as a person as beautiful as her nacreous name, but there is much in her life she doesn’t understand, and many situations in which she doesn’t know the right thing to do. After the fire, she muses, "They say that parts of a teenager’s brain aren’t formed yet. That might have been the problem. I’d like to think that rather than a malignancy of heart.”

Amiel’s harrowing situation is one we live with every day in Southern Arizona. There are many young men who take put their lives in danger in order to get across the border and earn a living. They work extremely hard and live in impoverished conditions so they can send money home to their families. Those who try to cross legally are at the mercy of the very corrupt Mexican police force and often find their money taken without receiving permission to exit the country. We have had friends, who, like Amiel, refused to go for help when sick or injured because of the fear of getting deported. In this book, Amiel is more afraid of the fire fighters than the fire itself, because authorities are a danger to him, as is a home-grown “posse” trying to drive out the migrant workers. Amiel’s story is presented in a low-key way as just one of the many barriers against a relationship forming with Pearl, but it is told with a sensitivity and compassion so often missing in the current political landscape.

Another part of this book that rang very true for me was the ability to communicate between Pearl and Amiel. Living in a bilingual culture, I have been impressed with how well one can get to the heart of meaning even if one doesn’t know the words with which to communicate directly. These two have additional bonds to draw upon: they both know each other is an outsider, and they both are “coming-of-age” teens, who can connect powerfully through their shared longing and hope and inchoate love that makes every day seem shimmering with possibility.

Wildfires and the fear and loss that accompany them also come close to my own experience, living in the Southwest. In Dark Water, McNeal writes of the fictional Agua Prieta Fire, which most closely resembles the actual Rice Canyon area of the October 2007 California wildfires. Overall, at least 1,500 homes were destroyed and over 500,000 acres burned from Santa Barbara County to the U.S.–Mexico border. In Fallbrook and outlying areas, 9,000 acres burned and 45,000 had to evacuate. (See a map of affected areas here.) The cause was never ascertained, but similar to when fires start in Southern Arizona, immigrants are generally suspected. Rarely do newscasters document the devastating effects on teenagers caught in the maelstrom; the author fills this gap by writing imaginatively of the reactions of Pearl, her cousin, and her classmates.

No matter the issue, McNeal’s prose is beautifully evocative, like this passage about the scorching hot day before the fire:

"On September 13, we were the kindling, and a monstrous god leaned over us to breathe. Clouds melted brush trembled, and the ocean burned white like molten glass. Palm fronds crashed into roads. Leaves swirled in the parking lot. My nose bled and my skin cracked. I breathed cotton-dry breaths through paper lips and dreamed of Amiel in the heat.”

Evaluation: The relationship between the two teenage protagonists is choreographed like a gentle ballet of two reticent people who sense that the acceptance they crave can finally be found with one another. But it is not just a story about love. It is a story about deciding what is wrong and what is right, and having the moral courage to embrace the ethical choice no matter the consequences.

This author is a gem, and her books are well worth seeking out.

Note: National Book Award Finalist ( )
  nbmars | Sep 27, 2011 |
This was a National Book Award finalist and I really don't get it. Perhaps it's because it's about a white girl and an illegal Mexican immigrant's "forbidden" love affair? I mostly found it boring and I didn't really like the characters. It just fell flat. ( )
  farnsworthk | Jul 28, 2011 |
The thing that initially caught my attention about Dark Water was the reference to avocado groves. I have a lot of family in Southern California and an in-law who grew up on land that contained over 200 avocado trees when her parents bought it. Combine that with what I have heard about McNeal’s writing and I was extremely curious about this book.

Since I knew this story was about a girl who meets a boy who works in the groves, I was prepared for some high school girl romantic pangs, what I wasn’t expecting was how deeply real this story would turn out to be. The book is about a girl named Pearl and the path her life takes during a time when many things were changing for her. There are a few mentions of a fire throughout the book but most of the story is about Pearl and Amiel, the boy catches her eye with his circus tricks.

Although the fire only takes up a small amount of the actual book, the intensity and reality of it transformed the story into something extremely powerful. That part of the story had the force of someone who had lived through something similar and this confirmed in the Author’s Note.

This is a story full of truth and pain. It is about the stupid decisions and infatuations that make being a teenager exciting but also the consequences of those decisions and the heartbreak that everyone experiences at some point of their life in one form or another. ( )
  msjessicamae | Apr 29, 2011 |
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For Tom
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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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375849734, Hardcover)

Fifteen-year-old Pearl DeWitt and her mother live in Fallbrook, California, where it’s sunny 340 days of the year, and where her uncle owns a grove of 900 avocado trees. Uncle Hoyt hires migrant workers regularly, but Pearl doesn’t pay much attention to them . . . until Amiel. From the moment she sees him, Pearl is drawn to this boy who keeps to himself, fears being caught by la migra, and is mysteriously unable to talk. And after coming across Amiel’s makeshift hut near Agua Prieta Creek, Pearl falls into a precarious friendship—and a forbidden romance.

Then the wildfires strike. Fallbrook—the town of marigolds and palms, blood oranges and sweet limes—is threatened by the Agua Prieta fire, and a mandatory evacuation order is issued. But Pearl knows that Amiel is in the direct path of the fire, with no one to warn him, no way to get out. Slipping away from safety and her family, Pearl moves toward the dark creek, where the smoke has become air, the air smoke.

Laura McNeal has crafted a beautiful and haunting novel full of peril, desperation, and love.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:37 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Living in a cottage on her uncle's southern California avocado ranch since her parent's messy divorce, fifteen-year-old Pearl Dewitt meets and falls in love with an illegal migrant worker, and is trapped with him when wildfires approach his makeshift forest home.… (more)

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