It was meant to be the great celebration as it is a tradition in Mexico: Carmen’s 15th birthday, the so called quinceañera to which many friends of the family were invited. But then suddenly shouting and gunshots. Just a couple of minutes later, almost all guests are dead, shot in the head. Only the teenagers Pato and Arbo, best friends since they were born, and the siblings Marcos and Gladys have survived because they had gone outside and could hide in the backyard. Then they are seen and they have to run. In Mexico under to law of rivalling gangs no one can escape their verdict. They must go north, to the USA, take the hard route through the desert without money, without knowing how. An old friend of Pato’s father helps them at first, and hides them for a couple of days, but the gangs are after them and soon the four lost souls find themselves out in the blazing sun without water or orientation.
Steve Schafer’s novel narrates a story we mainly know from the news: Mexico, a country in which the governmental institutions are powerless against the well-organised gangs who rule not only the drug market but also the human trafficking business. It is with them you have to come to terms with and either you accept their rules or you find yourself shot dead. The story thus seems to be quite authentic and especially the people’s fear which is omnipresent throughout the plot gives a good impression of what life is like there.
In the centre, we have two main aspects. The first is the illegal transgression of the northern border. It is not only the danger of being caught by the border patrol – neither on the Mexican nor on the US side this is something you can with for. It is also the dangerous and often fatal route through the desert. During daytime, the sun is burning hot and since you cannot carry as much water as you’d normally need, it is a tricky calculation if your supplies will suffice for your route. On the other hand, without a local guide, you are soon lost and erring around the sandy landscape. The four teenagers, too, make these experiences which more than once bring them close to death. Also the other refugees who pop out now and again tell the same story. Additionally, this is a market and again, you cannot just you what you want to without following the rules of the gangs.
The second and even more interesting aspect is the relationship between the four of them. For one thing, they are too young to know why their parents were shot. This question is looming over them, especially when Pato and Arbo come to realise that Marcos, who is a bit older, seems to know something. And when the two boys have to accept that their fathers’ business might not have been what they always thought it was and that they, too, might have made deals with the gangs, they have to adapt everything they ever believed in to this. Further, being threatened by death brings them closer together at times and more apart at others. They are on the edge with their nerves and often close to just giving up.
The author especially succeeds in the psychological portrayal of the characters under those extreme conditions. They are lively and never act like adults might in their place. They have a survival instinct but nevertheless stick to their teenage convictions shaped by the idea of friendship and mutual support. All in all, a young adult novel with the typical topics of the genre presented under the most awful conditions and written at a high pace which makes you read on.