Red Midnight by Ben Mikaelsen is based on many true stories of courage and hope that came out of Guatemala in the 1980s. It tells of the bravery of a young boy who escapes his village as the soldiers come to burn it to the ground and brutally murder all of the men, women, and children (the indígenos) of the village. The killings took place in that order, resulting in terrible emotional and psychological scars for any children who survived. This story is narrated by 12-year-old Santiago Cruz in short, easy-to-read sentences as would be spoken by someone with a rudimentary knowledge of english as a second language. A grade six student would have no difficulty reading this story but because of the content, I have listed it as a “teen read”. You would be the best judge as to whether or not your child is ready for the subject matter.
Santiago runs through the dark night with the blazing red sky of his burning village behind him, carrying his 4-year-old sister, Angelina. They hear the soldiers firing behind them, the bullets ricocheting off stones and trees around them. They don’t dare look back; they keep running. Eventually they find a horse that has also run in terror, and they begin their journey to do what their Uncle Ramos has told them: Leave Guatemala. Go as far away as you can and tell what has happened this night.
First, Santiago and Angelina must go south to Lake Izabal where Uncle Ramos lives and take his sailing cayuco with as much food and water as they can manage and sail to the United States of America. It is a long journey and they go through villages that have suffered the same fate as their own. They travel by horse until they reach the big cities, then stow away on trucks until they arrive at Uncle Ramos’ house. Santiago has only sailed the boat once before but he has sailed it many times in his dreams. Neighbours help them set out and they must sneak past the military boat guarding the entrance to Río Dulce before daylight comes. After that, Santiago must keep his wits about him, try to read the only map he has ever seen, keep himself and Angelina fed, avoid pirates, and face storms and sharks. It is a daring feat and he is scared, haunted by the images of what he has seen that night, but he keeps his sister’s spirits up by playing the game “keeping alive” which she learns to play very well. He is good at keeping his sister’s mind occupied and the ocean teaches him all he still does not know about sailing.
This is a wonderfully told story, realistic and full of drama and suspense. It is a story that should be shared with children but perhaps with some guidance or shared reading. With younger children, you could tell the story in an edited fashion, leaving out some of the scary and sometimes gruesome details, but it is definitely another Ben Mikaelsen winner.
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