Sunday, May 29, 2011

Life After by Sarah Darer Littman

Daniela Bensimon lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina with her mother, father and younger sister Sarita. Her father owned a clothing store and was able to support his family. Life use to be good but that was before the Argentinean Crisis of 2001. Government corruption and high debt contributed to a recession in Argentina. As a result, people lost faith in the banks and wanted to withdraw their money, changing their pesos into the safer dollar currency. The government attempted to halt this by restricting the amount of money people could withdraw from their accounts. The result was demonstrations and protests. The government of Fernando de La Rua collapsed and eventually Argentina ended up with a new president, Eduardo Duhalde. He decided to allow the peso to float against the dollar which resulted in drastic devaluation of the peso and a huge increase in inflation. Many people could no longer afford to pay for goods. Among them, was Dani's father who decided to close his clothing store. As a result, Dani's family was forced to subsist on the salary her mother earned as a nurse.

Besides the economic woes, her family has suffered terribly from a terrorist attack on the AMIA building on Monday July 18,1994. This attack, which happened on the same day as Dani's 7th birthday, killed her Tia Sara who was 8 months pregnant, as well as 84 other people. For Dani's father, the death of his sister has been a trauma he has never quite recovered from. This tragedy followed by the loss of his store has sent him into a deep depression that sees him often having violent outbursts.

For a while Dani tries to hold on to the life she once had and to cope with her family's poverty and her father's depression. She still meets her novio, Roberto (Beto) after school and they walk and kiss in the park. Beto and Dani discuss the possibility of their families leaving Argentina. Many of Dani's friends and relatives have already left including her best friend, Gabriela Tanenbaum (Gaby)who has emigrated to Israel along with many other Argentinean Jews. Eventually, Roberto also leaves, settling in Miami with his family.
Dani's mother continues to insist that they leave too but finally when another tragedy almost strikes, Dani's family decides to accept the offer of her Tio Jacobo to settle in New York.

Life in New York is very very different from life in Argentina. This new life is what Dani calls her Life After. Her family settles Twin Lakes, New York with the help of the local Jewish Family Services organization. While her sister Sarita goes to the local elementary school, Dani begins classes at the enormous Twin Lakes High School. High School is fraught with many challenges, including taking classes in English and trying to make friends in a culture so very different from what Dani is accostomed to.

On her first day she meets Brian Harrison who helps her navigate the school and tells her he is "personal GPS". Dani soon discovers that Brian is one of the good things. Their blossoming friendship holds the promise of something more if Dani can figure out where she stands with Roberto whom she hasn't seen in more than a year.

Another good thing about Twin Lakes is Jon a young student in Dani's class. Dani can relate well to Jon because like her, he is also an outsider, someone who is different from everyone else. But Dani also has to contend with Jessica, who at first is mean and who humiliates Dani on her first day at high school. It's not long though before Dani discovers that Jessica's unfriendliness is hiding a big hurt. It is this hurt that helps both Dani and Jessica connect.

I enjoyed reading this book very very much. First of all, I learned about the Argentinean crisis which most people probably have forgotten or maybe never even knew about because of the tragedy of 9/11. Littman does give us some background to the crisis at the very beginning of the book which is helpful. She also includes the AMIA (Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina)bombing of 1994, which I'm betting is unfamiliar to most North Americans. The terrorist theme is a strong one in Life After. The hurt of terrorism knows no boundaries and hurts us all whether in America or Argentina.I especially liked the way she portrayed young people as rising above the effects of terrorism to become stronger people.

Secondly, most of the characters who were central to the storyline, were well developed, realistic and interesting. Dani's struggles and worries about life in Argentina and in the United States were realistically portrayed. This was true not only about the situations Dani had to cope with at school but also her concerns over Roberto, whom she remained faithful to. Brian was an especially likeable character who was kind and respectable towards Dani.

I feel that Sarah Darer Littman did a good job of telling the story of a young immigrant, her struggles, her hopes and dreams and her successes in a positive and uplifting manner. My only complaint about this book is that it took very long to move from Life Before (Dani's life in Argentina) to Life, After. I'm sure part of this was due to the author setting up the circumstances for Dani's family leaving Argentina and also providing the reader a contrast to the two cultures and societies.

Overall a very good read!

Book Details:
Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman
New York: Scholastic Inc. 2011
281 pp.

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