The Plot: Pancho Sanchez, seventeen, ends up at St. Anthony’s Home after he is left alone. His mother died when he was young; his father was killed in a work accident; and then his sister, Rosa, twenty (but mentally more like a ten year old) was found dead. Pancho got kicked out of his temporary foster home placement for breaking a kid’s jaw. St. Anthony’s is the last stop before juvenile detention.
Daniel Quentin, or DQ, is also at St. Anthony’s, abandoned by his mother when he was ten. Now, seven years later, DQ has a tumor that is killing him slowly. His mother wants back in his life to dictate DQ’s treatment.
DQ wants to live, and die, on his own terms. He wants to make his own decisions. He creates the Death Warrior Manifesto and drags a reluctant Pancho into his vision of how a person should live. Pancho goes along with it for his own reasons that have nothing to do with DQ or his Manifesto. Pancho’s reason? His sister didn’t just die. She was murdered. Hanging out with DQ, accompanying DQ on DQ’s tumor treatments, will give Pancho the freedom from St. Anthony’s to find out who killed his sister. And to kill him.
The Good: You know, since this is the second book I’ve read based on/ inspired by Don Quixote, I probably should read the original. Or, at least, get Man of La Mancha from Netflix. (The other? Libba Bray’s Going Bovine).
Stork, author of last year’s Marcelo in the Real World, delivers another book with a diverse cast of characters. Pancho and his family are Mexican-American, as is Marisol, a teen health care volunteer; DQ and his family are white; Pancho’s sister is developmentally disabled; DQ’s mother is bipolar; DQ and other characters have cancer, and sometimes that has a physical impact. DQ, for example, is usually in a wheelchair.
Rosa’s family never treated her differently because of her disability. For the three months after their father died, the two Sanchez siblings were left alone by social services. Rosa had a job, waitressing, and was making money. Pancho discovers that while Rosa’s mind was that of a child, she was not a child, and had age-typical interest in boys. Pancho quickly realizes that Rosa is dead because someone took advantage of that.
Pancho wants to avenge his sister; he doesn’t see a life beyond that, nor does he want one. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is Pancho realizing, through his friendship with first DQ and then Marisol, that he has options. What choice will he make?
DQ is treated with conventional medicine, standard and experimental, as well as Johnny Corazon, a “shaman” or “healer”. I was a bit hesitant about the shaman / healer aspect. Would this be “think healthy thoughts and you will be healthy!” (with the implicit counter message, you’re sick because you didn’t think the right things). Would it be taking a new agey type of portrayal, with (mis)use of such healing? The book took neither approach; DQ’s treatment combines both elements and Corazon isn’t a new age type. DQ wants neither treatment; even the medical approach is experimental. He goes along with it because he is still a minor and hopes that agreeing to do submit to treatments for a month means that his mother will allow him to make future health choices on his own — including the choice to stop treatment. One thing I like that Stork does is first, it appears that the “faith healer” may be preying on people, taking advantage of the rich white woman (DQ’s mother) who is looking for answers anywhere, including rocks and herbs. At least, that is Pancho’s belief. To Pancho’s surprise (and mine!) it turns out that Johnny Corazon has a certificate in holistic medicine and there is more substance to him and what he does. I really cannot comment much more on the shaman aspect; via Twitter, Debbie Reese recommended Lisa Aldred’s PLASTIC SHAMANS AND ASTROTURF DANCES: NEW AGE COMMERCIALIZATION OF NATIVE AMERICAN SPIRITUALITY for those interested in knowing more.
I have to confess, I’m not a fan of “dying teen teaches others to live,” in either books or movies. Luckily, this is not that type of book. Yes, DQ is dying. Yes, his friendship with Pancho helps Pancho to get over the grief of losing his family and consider the possibility of life and love. Pancho has always been a fighter. Literally, his father taught him to box and he continues to practice at St. Anthony’s and to find mental calmness through physical activity. This makes his pairing with DQ all the more eloquent, in that DQ’s cancer physically weakens him to the point that merely walking is exhausting. DQ overthinks; Pancho doesn’t dwell on things. Together, they balance each other.
DQ is more than just a dying teen; he is trying to make sense of his place in life. He was hurt by his mother’s abandonment, and while we never learn whether he knows she is bipolar, considering everyone else does he has to realize that her leaving him at St. Anthony’s was not a selfish abandonment. At that time, his mother just could not take care of him. If Pancho’s internal journey is to let the dead bury the dead, DQ’s is to accept people as they are, including his mother. Part of that is realizing that “accepting” does not mean “agreeing with” or even “living with.” Pancho, too, has to learn about acceptance and forgiveness and the impact it has on the person doing the accepting and forgiving.