There's much to admire in Straight's (I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots) heartrending, take-no-prisoners fourth novel, which returns to the fictional California town of Rio Seco to expose the horrific dangers facing migrant farm workers and explore how families are created and sustained. The author's dramatic powers are best displayed in the novel's harrowing opening scene, in which a Mexican Indian mother, Serafina, is separated from her toddler daughter, Elvia, and forcibly taken back to Mexico without her. Fifteen years later, Elvia, a tough-talking pregnant teenager, fights her way out of crippling poverty, drug abuse and dysfunction to find her mother. Elvia's travels are interlaced with Serafina's simultaneous agonizing trek back from Mexico. Straight portrays this world in imagery that can be quite poetic: "California was full of saints, all dead, the green freeway signs like their tombstones." But the language can also be unconvincing, as when Serafina prays for the Virgin Mary to "wrap an invisible blanket of bubbles around Elvia, each dimple of air full of exhaled love." The novel relies on some hard-to-swallow plot points: it's difficult to believe that Serafina could have stayed away so long, or that she and Elvia would set out to look for each other at the exact same time. As a novelist, Straight is unswervingly focused on the intersections of love, race, class and violence; despite its flaws, this is an engrossing demonstration of her dedication to that vision. (Aug. 8)
Forecast:Some reviewers have been uncomfortable with Straight's focus, as a white writer, on black characters. Sales of her last two books were disappointing, but there is a chance that this one—which takes off in a slightly different direction (though it embraces a similar social agenda)—may do better.