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The Long Road

by Luis Garay

This is a book one wants to like, for it must have considerable personal meaning for author/illustrator Luis Garay. His second picture book, it’s a story of bravery, of surviving tragedy and remaking a life. The methods he uses to convey these large themes, however, may not work for every reader.

As the story begins, in a Spanish-speaking country that is probably Nicaragua, where Garay was born, people go about life in ways any child understands, playing baseball, eating with the family, patting a beloved dog. There is that military plane passing overhead, but no one looks up. Then, after a Christmas visit to Grandma, José and his mother return to find the worst has happened. Everyone is gone. Mother and son start alone on the long road to a new beginning.

Garay handles such overwhelming loss in a matter-of-fact way. He sets the terrible events – when José’s father was arrested, when the village was emptied of life – off-stage. The reader, like José, does not know the full story. José’s mother leads him to safety away from everything they have ever known with a mechanical practicality that admits no tears. The bureaucracies are compassionate and efficient. The ending is happy, surely – José is resettled, rehoused, in school, dressed for the cold.

But the celebration that ends the book feels joyless. José’s birthday present cannot restore his lost childhood, cannot replace his father, Uncle Ramón, Tia Mariá, Tia Rose. This sadness, implicit in the flatness of both text and illustrations, is reinforced by the story’s finishing on the only two-page spread without a picture. It is as if, in all conscience, Garay cannot offer any cheerful image of happy-ever-after. His carefully detailed paintings seldom show José and his mother full-face; we don’t really know what is going on inside them, though occasionally we catch the bewildered gaze of this polite, neatly dressed child. That eye contact, and a sympathetic adult reader, may nudge young listeners to ask what really happened to José, and what is happening to him now.