Book review: “Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood”
Brianne Kane – Special to the Southern News
It is National Hispanic Heritage month, so it seemed only right that the book review this week would be about Hispanic heritage somehow. “Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, is about the beautiful underbelly of humanity, love, and family that survives under such heavy constructs such as prejudice, poverty, and loss. The novel begins with:
“The first thing the dead do is lose their voices. But they have their ways of making us listen. Maybe the dead need those of us who made it out alive to go out into the streets and tell everyone what happened. Maybe they want us to do more than tell. Maybe they want us to shout. Maybe they want us to point fingers. Maybe they want us to tell anyone who’ll stop and listen that once, the world was theirs too. Maybe they won’t leave us alone until we say their names out loud again and again and again.” – Sammy Santos
Sammy Santos spends the majority of the novel as a young high-school boy in love with the beautiful and mysterious Juliana. But Sammy suffers great loss in this novel, including the loss of his mother which entirely changes the family dynamic of his household. If you don’t feel like sobbing over fictional characters, this may not be the best book for you – there is real sadness in this novel, the sadness of youth, the sadness of poverty, and the sadness of lost love. But what is most beautiful about this novel is that for every ugly, heart wrenching scene that makes you throw the book across the room and squeeze your pillow tight – there is an equally beautiful scene of the marvelous scope of human caring, human friendship and love.
The friendship that Sammy develops, a small group of friends who don’t seem to fit in with the rest of their high school (a trope of any high-school focused novel) is one that literally and figuratively saves the lives of all the characters in this novel. For example, Sammy and Rene were in the park hanging out one night when they noticed a fight happening in a nearby parking lot. Now, everyone knows when you see a fight – you go see the fight! But when the two boys start running towards they notice that they know whose car it is that was abandoned for the fight – their friend Jaime.
Sammy and Rene suddenly rush four boys from their school beating Jamie and Eric, Jamie’s boyfriend. But this novel takes place in the 1960’s and boys weren’t allowed to have boyfriends in this time, and in this small town outside of Hollywood, where the novel takes place. The novel tackles political issues such as this, as well as the social repercussions of being abused/being an abuser, the social limitations of poverty and the world in which poor Hispanic men and women live in daily. The dated political issues of this novel, surrounding the Vietnam War for example, do not affect the end result of the novel.
“Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood” start with being about a boy in love with a girl (how original!) but ends with a young man, grown, wiser and stronger who graduates high school with bright horizons in front of him.
Even if you don’t read this book, you’re missing out, but at least read this. When Sammy’s superficial, make-up obsessed and boy-crazed friend Gigi sings a song, while they all sit on the bumpers of their cars and sip on stolen beer:
“I didn’t know anybody could sing like that. And the song she was singing, it was an old Mexican love song entitled ‘La Gloria Eres Tu.’ She was singing from a different place. And in the moonlight, she didn’t seem like a girl at all. She was a woman with a voice. Any man would die just to hear that voice. I thought the world had stopped to listen to Gigi Carmona from Hollywood. I could see tears rolling down Pifa’s face. As pure as Gigi’s voice. Maybe this was the way the world should end. Not with me and my own thoughts, not with high school boys using their firsts on each other, not with Pifas going off to war – but with the tears of boys falling to the beat of a woman’s song, the sounds of guns and bombs and fists against flesh disappearing. This is the way the world should end with boys turning into men as they listen to a woman sing.”
For a novel about a bunch of high schoolers, “Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood” is ahead of it’s time. The kids in this story not only obsess over which color eye-liner matches more with their lipstick, aspects of high school life we all remember and we all are sick of being in TV movies. But this story shows the quiet moments spent in secret locations, where you tell your best friend about your dad’s drinking problem or how your mom hasn’t been home in a week and you don’t know where she is; this story shows kids talking about the social and personal impacts of war while they try to catch flies in their hand and steal beer from the corner store.
The slang and casually spoken Spanish throughout the novel adds another layer of authenticity to the characters without distracting from the story itself. All in all, even though the target audience is high school aged kids who live in similarly low-socioeconomic neighborhoods – anyone will love this book, because everyone loves a truly remarkable and heartfelt story about growing up and figuring out what the f**k that means.