Free Press, 2010224 pp.
This book came to me from the First Editions book club at Book Passage -- it's an excellent program that puts the newest literary works in your hands each month.
In a small slice of Los Angeles, outside the small neighborhood mercado called El Guanaco, Friday afternoons belonged to a group of women and their daughters. The girls would dress in "Madonna-style outfits," turn on a portable cassette deck and dance, while their moms would clap their hands and provide encouragement. They did this because El Guanaco was the on-location film site of rock star Madonna's video for her song "Borderline," and also because this was their small gesture aimed at taking back one of the most violent corners of the neighborhood, if only for a while. On one particular day, years ago, the mother of Aurora Esperanza wanted a picture, so the girls lined up. Aurora argued with her mother Felicia about kneeling with the little girls, wanting instead to stand with the women, and as they argued, a series of gunshots went off, leaving little 3 year old Alma Guerrero dead. The paper the next day would have a headline that read "Baby Madonna Murdered by Heartless Thugs." This one incident serves as the focal point of this novel, which is really more of a collection of short narratives told by several characters over several years. The rest of the novel is about people in this community left to deal with the incident in some way, especially Aurora and Felicia. The stories intersect as do the characters, who move in and out of the other characters' lives as some point as time goes on.
The characters are varied, but their stories have all have several points in common -- the themes of identity, place and dislocation running through the entire book. For example, there's the story of a former gang member, whose gang "used to own these streets," and who now sits with his son Juan at an upscale coffee shop on Sunset eating a "grilled cheese and soy bacon sandwich, made on seven-grain bread with organic, grass-fed, raw-milk cheddar." They keep coming back because "it's in the neighborhood." Or the story of Freddy Blas, coming back to Echo Park after being away in prison, and finding a different world when he returns. Or Felicia, whose early life had been uprooted at the same time as her grandmother lost her home in Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium and now makes her living as a cleaning lady, only to be uprooted once more. Or my favorite story about Efren Mendoza. He's a city bus driver who goes by the rules and who knows where people will be safe getting off of his bus, depending on their ethnic backgrounds. Efren has nothing but scorn and contempt for illegal immigrants because he's convinced they make problems for the hard-working Mexican-Americans like himself. He also singlehandedly causes a major riot by what he does when a fight breaks out on his bus.
It's amazing to think that Madonnas of Echo Park is Skyhorse's first novel. His characters are believable and real. There's also an overarching aura of humanity and dignity in every narrative and in the overall book as a whole. And he pulls off all of this without being preachy. And his choice of Echo Park as the setting for Madonnas is excellent, considering what's going on there lately regarding gentrification, higher rents, and the edging out of some of the members Latino community who've been there all of their lives. This is happening everywhere, not just in Echo Park.
I hope more people read this novel. I've heard something about Oprah touting it as a good summer read, but it goes well beyond just a light, easygoing book that you may want to read while laying out at the beach. While some of the story may have a bit more sentimentality than I normally like, it's definitely a book I'm happy to have read. And don't brush it off merely because of the subject matter -- I don't care which side of the political fence you are on, this is a book about the fate of a group of human beings. Bottom line.
as an aside: If you're interested, there's a really good video called "Gentrification Nation" at youtube that captures some of the current problems of Echo Park.