The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau is a story told in two times, the present day and what is known only as “Long, Long Ago,” but only one place — the Hill of Dust in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mateo and his mother visit their family in Oaxaca every summer, but this year, Mateo can tell there is something different about his grandfather as soon as he arrives. Before long, Mateo’s grandfather launches into a captivating tale, one he’s been longing to tell for years. He tells of a young boy whose family has been fractured by tragedy, and of the young gypsy girl and her caravan who change his life forever after they come to the Hill of Dust.
In long, long ago, when Teo meets Esma, his family is still reeling from the death of his twin sister the year before. Teo’s mother is paralyzed by her sorrow, unable to leave her room or even hold a normal conversation. Teo himself is struggling to find his place in a world that seems impossibly lonely without his sister. Esma comes to the Hill of Dust with her Romani family, just passing through, but Teo is instantly captivated by her beautiful voice and spirited personality. After a fortune teller prophesizes that the pair will be friends for life, they each discover that this friendship is just what they need.
I was charmed by this sweet little middle-grade novel! The story spends most of its time with Teo and Esma, only jumping back to the present day from time to time, but the way Resau brings it all together at the end is sure to delight young readers. Their friendship is genuine and heartfelt, and I loved learning about each of their lives as they learned to trust and help each other. I found Esma, who suffers from a twisted leg and dreams of someday becoming a famous singer (even if it means alienating herself from her family), particularly vivacious and fun to read. Still, I will admit that Teo’s entourage of needy baby animals — an orphaned duckling, a blind goat, and a three-legged skunk — very nearly stole the show for me. A book where a child endeavors to help and befriend injured animals (and they all live) will get me every time.
Resau, who lived as a teacher and anthropologist in rural Mexico, vividly brings Oaxaca and its people to life. In reading the story of Teo and Esma’s friendship, readers learn about the culture of one of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Mixteco, who faced horrible discrimination from Mexico’s inhabitants of Spanish descent, and about the Romani people, another group that lived in Mexico and faced discrimination there. It is partly on these shared stories of hardship that Teo and Esma’s friendship is formed. Resau’s educational notes following the story make clear that the discrimination Mixteco and Romani peoples face is not a thing of the past, but unfortunately still very much alive in the world today. Although Resau is a white, American woman, she has carefully and lovingly crafted a story that is both engaging and respectful to the cultures it depicts. If you are a privileged person writing the story of characters who face discrimination which you have never faced, this should be the care with which you approach your topic. (But let’s be clear — Resau’s attention to detail doesn’t stand in for books written about the Mixteco and Romani cultures by people of those cultures. The world needs to read those stories, and all lovers of books should demand a publishing community where those writers have as much of a chance of getting published as Resau does.)
Ultimately, The Lightning Queen is a sweet story that will enchant readers of all ages. I highly suggest picking it up!
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.