Published 2017 by Roaring Brook Press
I’m a big fan of Marcus Sedgwick’s work, and Midwinter Blood and Ghosts of Heaven are two of my all-time favorite books. I was really looking forward to Saint Death, and Sedgwick did not disappoint. This is an unflinching look at poverty, economic injustice, and violence.
Set in a small town called Anapra on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico, Saint Death is the story of a young man named Arturo. Arturo exists on the edges of society. He’s basically alone in the world, he lives in a shack with no water or electricity, and he has only occasional work at a local garage. Anapra is a dismal place. People live in makeshift shacks, they’re terribly poor, and they’re at constant risk of violence from drug trafficking gangs.
One day, Arturo’s foster brother, Faustino, shows up looking for help. Arturo hasn’t seen Faustino in a couple of years, and Faustino has gotten himself into trouble. He’s been working for a drug gang, and he took $1000 from a stash of cash that his boss left with him for safekeeping. He spent the money to pay coyotes to smuggle his girlfriend and their infant son over the border into the United States. But now he needs to replace the money, and he wants Arturo to join a high stakes card game to try to win cash for him. Arturo is an expert at the card game Calavera, and Faustino is convinced that he can win enough money to save him. Arturo is hesitant, but loyalty to Faustino wins out and he agrees to play the game.
Unsurprisingly, nothing turns out as expected, and Arturo and Faustino are in way over their heads. This book is very tense; you know things can’t possible turn out well when an unworldly kid goes up against some very bad men, but you’re rooting for Arturo even as he makes some very bad decisions (although it’s hard not to make some bad decisions when you have no good options). Although it’s just over 200 pages and hard to put down, I wouldn’t call Saint Death an easy read. Sedgwick doesn’t shy away from portraying the desperation and brutality that Arturo faces every day. Anapra is a grim, hopeless place, and if you’ve ever wondered why someone might risk everything to slip over the border into the United States, this book goes a long way toward explaining it. The poverty is grinding, the police look the other way while the drug gangs run the town, women disappear without a trace, and Mexican workers are paid a pittance in factories that produce components that are shipped to the United States and assembled into “Made in the USA” products.
There’s a lot of vivid imagery in Saint Death. The title refers to La Santa Muerte (literally Saint Death), a deity in Mexican folk religion whose iconography is a female skeletal figure. Her cult has grown in recent years, and Faustino insists that he and Arturo visit a shrine to her before the card game. Arturo is dubious about her, but his thoughts return to her throughout the book and he has the sense that she’s watching him. I’m fascinated by the Santa Muerte iconography, and the representation of the skull on the cover is really effective for the story.
This is a really important book given our current political climate. Highly recommended.