CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 2 . . . .September 15, 2006
I Am a Taxi. (The Cocalero Novels).
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2006.
205 pp., pbk. & cl., $9.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (cl.).
ISBN 0-88899-736-1 (pbk.), ISBN 0-88899-735-3 (cl.).
Coca industry-Bolivia-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.
Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.
They started collecting the coca leaves earlier and got to the pits earlier. Some of the farmers carried sacks of leaves partway down the trail with them, but they were not allowed to go the whole way to the clearing. The boys had to double back to pick up the extra sacks.
Then it was back into the pit. Diego was going to pass on the smoking, because he’d felt so sick when he woke up, but he remembered how much easier it made the work. He breathed deeply. The smoke brought him back to life, and he started to move.
When the cigarettes came around again, Diego took in as much as his lungs would hold.’‘”Mamá’s boy is growing up,” Mando said, and Diego laughed.
He was still buzzing when the sun came up, and he made himself useful straining the clumps of putty out of the chemical solution.
“That’s a bit better,” Rock said, holding up the slightly larger package of paste. “You may be worth feeding after all.”
“Feeding and paying,” Diego said.
Whether writing novels like the “Breadwinner” trilogy and The Heaven Shop or nonfiction works such as Our Stories, Our Songs and Three Wishes, Ellis exposes her North American readers to the harsh lives being experienced by children and youth who live in developing countries. Despite the book’s fantasy-sounding title, I Am a Taxi is most definitely reality based.
The first of “The Cocalero Novels” (Spanish for Coca farmer) I Am a Taxi, which begins on December 31, 1999, and concludes in the spring of 2000, features Diego Juárez, 12, who resides with his mother and younger sister in the San Sebastián Women’s Prison in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a country which Ellis points out in her concluding “Author’s Note” is the poorest in South America and the second-poorest in the Western hemisphere. Diego’s parents have already served four years of a 17 year prison sentence for supposedly having tried to smuggle coca paste. Interestingly, Ellis makes no mention of the trial of Diego’s parents and only briefly describes the incident in which Diego’s obviously innocent parents were apprehended by the police while being in the vicinity of the incriminating cocaine ingredient. Diego and his three-year-old sister, Corina, who was born in prison, share their mother’s cell which is but five paces wide and only long enough for the single bed in which the three must sleep. Diego’s father is incarcerated in the men’s prison which is just across the square. Bolivian prisons are quite unlike those in Canada.
Except for a serving of bread and milk every morning for prison children, the government provided nothing - not food, not blankets, not even cells. Everybody had to work. Women who couldn’t earn money would do chores for women who could.
To raise the necessary money for food and cell rent, Diego’s mother knits and Diego, who is not a prisoner and can leave the prison during daylight hours, sells Mamá’s products in the streets. Additionally, Diego is a taxi or a messenger for the prisoners, and, for a fee, he runs errands outside the prison. Diego attends a school populated largely by students of European descent, and there he gets his noonday meal and makes more money by doing the homework of some of his lazy classmates.
While Diego’s life is not the happiest, it does have its own stability and predictability. However, everything changes one evening when Diego’s mother charges him with watching over Corina. Immersed in his own activities, Diego fails to notice that his little sister has disappeared. Because of the brouhaha caused by Diego’s temporarily “losing” his sister, his mother is disciplined by the Prison Discipline Committee, which is composed of Mamá’s fellow inmates, who rule that Diego’s carelessness merits his not being allowed to work as a taxi for an indeterminate length of time.
Recognizing that the decision’s economic impact could mean that the three of them would likely have to give up their cell and return to sleeping on a mat outside in the courtyard, something they had done in done during their first year, Diego gives into the blandishments of his best friend, Armando aka Mando, 14, who lives with his father in the men’s prison. For some time, Mando has been telling Diego that, through his prison contacts, he knows some men who can give them both good paying jobs. Diego, recognizing that the only "good paying" jobs for youth are connected to the drug trade, has consistently rejected Mando’s offers, but now, desperate for a source of money, Diego leaves his mother a note saying that he will be staying with his father for the next two weeks.
In fact, Diego joins Mando and three glue-sniffing street boys who are taken by truck deep into the jungle by two men. There, for almost a month and constantly plied with cigarettes laced with coca paste, the five boys labor long hours in a pit dug into the jungle floor converting dried coca leaves into coca paste which will be then be transported to another country to be transformed into cocaine. When Diego comes to suspect that they will never be paid for their work and might be killed instead, he and Mando try to escape, but Mando accidentally falls to his death while Diego is recaptured by Smith, the gringo who appears to be in charge of the operation.
Fearing that Mando’s death might attract the authorities, Smith ferries the group via helicopter to another location and takes Diego with him. As soon as the coptor lands, Diego bolts into the jungle with Smith, now intent in killing him, in pursuit. Although Diego manages to escape Smith and eventually stumbles upon the safety of a farm, the book ends without a final resolution. Undoubtedly, readers, captivated by Diego’s story to this point, will eagerly await the sequel, Sacred Leaf, but unfortunately it’s not scheduled for publication until Fall 2007.
The aforementioned “Author’s Note” provides a three page overview of Bolivian history as well as an explanation of the traditional role that coca played in Bolivian society before a scientist created cocaine from coca in 1860 and how that discovery led to the contemporary drug trade in cocaine and crack. Ellis also includes a three page glossary of the Spanish and Aymara words which appear in the text.
In terms of the book’s length, it is almost equally divided between Diego’s period at the prison, a setting which would not be out of place in a Dickens novel, and Diego’s time in the jungle, working in the pits converting coca leaves into paste.
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children’s and adolescent literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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