Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Strong Undertow

Just like a strong undertow, plot reversals have the power to sweep away our expectations and draw us deeper into the story, closer to the heart of each character as the characters struggle to keep their footing.

Pam Munoz Ryan is a master of such reversals.

In Becoming Naomi Leon, Ryan employs a succession of these reversals, sweeping readers deeper into a tender tale about an 11 year old girl, Naomi, and her younger brother, Owen, living with their great-grandma after being abandoned by their mother.

Though Naomi loves her great-grandma deeply, she can't help longing for the mother she's never known. Ryan alludes to the changes soon to occur in Naomi's life in this opening paragraph:
...I felt like that dog in an old Saturday morning cartoon. The one where the mutt wears a big wooly sweater and a fox runs up and pulls a hanging-down piece of yarn. Then the fox races off with it, undoing the tidy stitches one by one. Pretty soon the poor dog is bare to its skin, shivering, and all that had kept it warm is nothing more than a bedraggled string.
When there's a knock at the door at the end of the first chapter, we turn the page to find Naomi's mother returning after a seven year absence to reclaim her daughter, and our hearts await an emotional reunion.

What happens next, though, is the reverse of what we might expect when a long-lost mother returns:
I walked over to Skyla and she put her hands on my shoulders, keeping me at arm's length. She did that sort of leaning-in type of hug, with a quick cheek-to-cheek touch. It was not the I-haven't-seen-you-in-seven-years type of hug that I would have expected.
The first half of the book is a series of small reversals working like a steady undertow to pull the reader's feet out from under him, just as Naomi's expectations are pulled out from under her.

The reversals grow more and more dramatic as Naomi realizes her mother never recovered from alcoholism and returned only to take her away from Gran. Shouts and threats between mother and daughter rise to physical violence (Skyla hits Naomi at one point), reaching a climax with Skyla's announcement of her plan to regain custody of her daughter.

Our expectations of a warm reunion between mother and daughter fall away as the story unfolds, replaced by our growing knowledge of Naomi's mother as hot-tempered and emotionally unstable. Like Naomi, we learn that we cannot trust her.

It's with great relief that we watch Gran load Owen and Naomi into her trailer, and, with the help of friends, begin the trek south to Mexico, fleeing the trailer park that they called home in hope of finding Naomi's father.

As far as Naomi knows, her father, Santiago, never wanted her after her birth. But, just as the first half of the story involves a series of reversals, so, too, does the second half of the book contain its own succession of reversals.

When Naomi reaches Mexico and finds her father, she discovers (to her surprise) that she has more in common with him than she'd ever suspected. Not just her face and features, but her ability to carve animals and fantastic figures out of soap and wood.

In another reversal, her father turns out to be a warm and gentle man, not the heartless man painted by her mother in Naomi's mind for years. Even after the many years of separation, he still loves his children and is willing to write a letter to the court in support of Gran's battle for custody.

Here's the scene where Naomi meets her father after so many years:
I wanted to go to him but I felt as if I was knee-deep in wet cement. I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but only tears came out.

Santiago scooped Owen up with one arm and walked to me. Then he knelt down on one knee, reached out, and pulled me into his arms. At first he rocked us back and forth like people do when they're just plain happy to see a friend, but then he became still and pulled us even closer. I knew he was crying by the way his chest was sputtering up and down and by the sounds of his sniffling. I clung on tight to him and he squeezed back over and over, his arms strong and protective. When I pressed my face into his shirt, I smelled sea salt and... was I dreaming? A whiff of soap.
The difference in this embrace from her earlier meeting with her mother is striking, isn't it?

This reunion, toward the close of the book, creates the strongest kind of undertow, drawing readers into the deepest recesses of Naomi's heart as she finds the love of a father who she hadn't known existed.

The story's reversals don't stop after Naomi leaves her father to return to the U.S. for the custody hearing.

The judge favors granting custody of the children to Skyla and her boyfriend. But, thankfully, once the judge hears Naomi describe in her own words how she feels about her mother, the judge has a change of heart.

In the end, Naomi remains with Gran and Owen, no longer the timid, quiet girl who appeared at the start of the story but Naomi the Lion (another reversal)...a lioness who has acted to save herself and her brother... and who has truly earned her name.

As you read, try to feel a story's undertow as reversals in plot sweep away your expectations and pull you into the story, ever deeper into each character's heart.

For more info on Pam Munoz Ryan's work, check out her website: and also this interview:

1 comment:

jo'r said...

Ryan's book has some wonderful story elements to it, and the sections selected by Bruce to draw us into the story worked well for me. I'll have to read this book. Besides the elements of story reversals, I can see the use of another story device, the epiphanies, where Naomi recognizes, first, that the mother isn't all she hoped for, and again, the father isn't the ogre she had feared. The story also incorporates another great device, the hero's quest, or journey, where Naomi, and Gran, embark on a long journey to Mexico to secure a boon (treasure), Santiago's letter to the court, which will help ensure a happy future for Naomi. I don't yet know how many obstacles she encounters along the way, but from Bruce's discussion I see one of the last obstacles she faces in completing her hero's journey is convincing the judge to grant her Gran custody. This story seems structured so well on so many levels, and of course the examples of language read strong and compelling. I look forward to reading it.