If it can be said that a novel whose central character is the mother of a teenage son is a coming-of-age novel, then Todos Santos is exactly that. In fact, both Catherine Barnes and her 14-year-old son, Isaac, have coming-of-age experiences in what is Deborah Clearman’s debut novel.
Catherine Barnes has been living the good life in Iowa with her professor husband and young son. But when she learns that her husband makes a habit of becoming intimately involved with female students of his, she understands she has been living a lie. Making matters even worse, Isaac is so uninterested in school that he will fail 8th grade unless he attends summer school. Catherine senses that both she and her son badly need to get away from Iowa for a while, and when her sister-in-law invites her to Guatemala for the summer, she gladly accepts the offer.
Zelda, a longtime resident of Guatemala, happily agrees to put Isaac to work in her shop while Catherine, an illustrator of children’s books, moves on to remote Todos Santos to work on her next book. As Catherine learns from Oswaldo, the guide Zelda hired for her, Todos Santos is a mountain town with a violent past, one whose residents are still very much influenced by superstition, black magic and legends about ancient mountain gods. Only after she moves into a Todos Santos hotel and begins her work, does Catherine fully realize just how different a culture surrounds her.
Isaac, in the meantime, tricks his aunt into believing that he has been invited on a weekend trip by the parents of his new friend, a 15-year old boy from New Jersey. In reality, he and Ben are off to the coast on an adventure of their own, an adventure that leads to tragedy for both boys. Catherine knows it is up to her to rescue her son, but she is hours away from him and Todos Santos is falling into chaos around her. What happens over the course of the next few days will change Catherine and Isaac forever.
Deborah Clearman’s novel is an eye-opener for readers like me who come to it with little more than a generic picture of Guatemala in mind: a country with beautiful beaches, widespread poverty, recent political violence, and little hope that things will get better, etc. These clichés are all true to one degree or another but Clearman uses her Guatemalan characters to remind us that people are pretty much the same no matter where they might live, that our similarities far outnumber our differences. Parents everywhere want to provide the best possible lives for their children. Mothers love their children more than they love themselves. Relationships change, and love is sometimes found when and where one least expects to find it.
That Deborah Clearman has a deep affection for the people and culture of Guatemala is obvious. She has, after all, been visiting and living there since the late 1970s. One only has to read Todos Santos to understand why.
Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)