Tomasa lives with her mama and papa, her older brother Carlos, her younger brother Manuelito , her baby sister Maria and her grandmother in the stunningly beautiful Guatemalan Highlands. It’s 1984. Her life is simple and happy until the soldiers come. They start by taking away her friend Hector and almost taking her brother Carlos before they realize he is too young for the Army. Planes spray insecticide which makes the villagers sick and mama complains. After that, someone throws a threatening note into the family’s house. It’s aimed at mama. Mama and Carlos leave to get away from the soldiers. The rest of the family stays and hopes that things will get better and mama and Carlos will be able to return. Instead things get much worse. On the night papa, Tomasa, Manuelito and Maria leave the soldiers violence throws the village into chaos. One of the soldier’s bullets kills Abuela. This view of life under a brutal regime determined to do away with its indigenous population is filtered through Tomasa’s narrative and her 13-year-old understanding of the situation.
Papa and the children head first to Guatamala City, but they are warned on the outskirts that the city is not safe. They turn North and head towards Mexico, hoping all the time that somewhere they will find mama and Carlos. Their attempts to cross the river between Guatemala and Mexico with the aid of a coyote are horrendous.
In Mexico City they find a safe house and also news of mama and Carlos. They are in Phoenix, Arizona. People from the Sanctuary Movement in the United States help the family to cross into Arizona and be reunited with mama and Carlos.
The story is taut, especially as the family tries to cross the river. The political and human reality is very grim. As I remember, the reality was very grim for me as an adult at the time. Tomasa’s narrative tells us the part of reality she is able to handle. Her dreams tell us a bit more about the terror she feels. She never loses hope. She never lets her baby sister lose hope. She tries to help her brother with his resentment towards mama for leaving them.
There’s an excellent “About the Story” note in the back of the book, followed by this section is followed by a glossary and a map I referred to more than once.
Jackson Browne singing “Lives in the Balance,” a popular song from the 1980s. It addresses the politics in the US much more than “Journey of Dreams” does, but it also addresses politics in countries that turn on their own citizens.