Through Fences Review

By | Thursday, March 21, 2024 Leave a Comment
It wasn't until I went off to college that I started to get a real sense of how many people lived very different types of lives than me. Intellectually, I certainly learned that years earlier but I had never really been in a position where I could actually see how people lived. It was, in fact, part of why I chose to go to a large, urban university instead of something smaller and/or more local. I knew there was much more out there than I was seeing in the town where I grew up; where I was was far too limited and limiting, I felt. So I moved from a town with a population of around 7,000 to a school that had an undergraduate population of 35,000 in a city of 360,000. And while that was certainly very eye-opening at the time, I can look back on that and see how incredibly insular that still was. After all, the percentage of Americans with college degrees was only about 21% at the time; which meant that a whopping 79% of the country's population did not. I was still very much seeing a relatively niche segment of people.

Much of my adult life has been about expanding my horizons, both intellectually as well as empathetically. I've tried to gain a better understanding and appreciation of how other people live, regardless of where they're from or what their background is. Some of that comes naturally with age; just by living longer, you meet more people and statistically the more people you meet the more likely it is you'll run into someone with a different background than your own. But I don't find that to be nearly sufficient. In part because I wouldn't even know where to begin in many places.

So when a book like Though Fences by Frederick Luis Aldam and Oscar Garza comes along, I try to snatch it up quickly. The book actually contains a series of short stories -- barely more than vignettes, really -- of seven Latino kids and young people that live along the US/Mexico border. None of them live especially unusual lives; like everybody else, they do what they can to get through the day, and try to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. Some of those opportunities pan out, some don't. Same as the rest of us. Most try to exercise some control over their lives, but for a variety of reasons, they're not always able. Same as the rest of us.

The stories touch on the lives of these people and, while they aren't exactly shown to be living lives of luxury, there's no gratuitious attempt to pull on the reader's heart strings. These stories are presented pretty matter-of-factly, I think with the deliberate intention to show how matter-of-fact these types of stories are for many people. Of the seven stories, there are only two that explicitly show the protagonists' situation as the same as a large group, but it's not at all hard to extrapolate how common all of these stories are. One kid talks about how he always wanted to be on TV and wound up being on a reality police show; Cops has been running for 35 seasons with over 30 episodes in most seasons -- it's kind of amazing everybody hasn't been on the show at some point! But yeah, it's easy to see that while some of the details of each story might be unique, the general circumstances very much are not.

I've read Aldama's work before and I expected the stories themselves to be solid. They very much are, taking a first person perspective with the speech patterns and idiosyncrasies of language unique to each protagonist. There are a few bits of Spanish dropped in in places, and some lolspeak in one story, but nothing I don't think is critical to getting the story across. Admittedly, though, I do recall enough high school Spanish that I was able to get the gist of the handful of instances where it's used in the story. The only thing I felt compelled to look up actually was a three-letter combination of lolspeak that I didn't recognize. So, like I said, no surprise that Aldama turned into some solid storytelling and characterizations.

I have to admit to being surprised by Garza's art. I was not familiar with his work prior to this, so I had no expectations going in, but he really did a fantastic job throughout the book. He actually drew each story in a slightly different style that's appropriate for that particular story and/or protagonist. The first story, for example, is told by a fairly young girl and none of the other characters portrayed have their heads shown; everything gets cropped off around the shoulders and neck... because that's the physical perspective such a young girl would have! The last story is about a sixteen-year-old who claims to be TikTok famous, so her story is largely told through the camera lens on her phone. Other approaches are more subtle, but if I mention them here, it might prove to be something of a spoiler in several cases. I wouldn't have expected the levels of nuance that Garza brings to the table, based on some of the cartoony art I saw in the previews, but he really brought his A-game to the table on this.

I have to say that I was really impressed with Though Fences and it did an even better job connecting me with those stories where I wouldn't otherwise know where to begin finding. I'd easily recommend this to folks looking to expand their perspecives on what things can be like along the border. The book came out in January from Mad Creek Books, and retails for $17.95 US.
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