“Colombiano” by Rusty Young

Genre: YA/Coming-Of-AgeThe Colombmian
Publisher:  Havelock & Baker
Pub. Date:  Feb. 1, 2020

The Coming-Of-Age and Young Adult genres are often confused. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a C-O-A classic. “The Outsiders” is a YA classic. Although I enjoy the YA classics, I am not a fan of contemporary YA. At the age of thirteen, I read “The Outsiders,” which began my life-long love of reading. It inspired me to write my own manuscript at a tender age (something that has never seen the light of day).  It was a teenage S.E. Hinton, afterall, who wrote “The Outsiders,” and she did so with a teen audience in mind.  Still, I know of adults who read the book and became invested in the story’s portrayal of class struggle, with its strong dose of Jets vs. Sharks. Hinton’s writing style provides many satisfying nods to an audience beyond teenagers. Readers fell in love with Ponyboy Curtis as they did with Francie Nolan.  I find most of contemporary YA, on the other hand, to lack anything of interest for those outside its target audience. For example, since I am a fan of Gothic literature, I gave the “Twilight” series a try. I never made it past the first book. Though I’m open to hearing any arguments otherwise, it’s hard to find something in the story beyond the central teen melodrama. Bram Stoker’s literary masterpiece would seem to exist on another planet.

So why in the world did I read “Colombiano,” a contemporary novel over 700 pages long?  The answer is the author. That he once chose to spend four months in a Colombian prison to research his 2004 non-fiction book, “Marching Powder,” demands respect. For this gritty and heartbreaking novel, he interviewed Colombian child soldiers. Not your usual YA kind of author. Young’s experiences make the novel feel utterly authentic. The book’s characters are fictional but based on the real-life children he interviewed, all of whom were swept into the never-ending Colombian civil war. To paraphrase the book’s blurb, you have to choose a side: the ruthless guerrilla FARC, or the equally ruthless Autodefensa, their vigilante rivals. “Pick a side, or one will be picked for you.”

As Young stated in a 2017 interview with the New Zealand Herald, “I took the most dramatic, powerful, of each of these stories, and attributed all those stories to one person.”  His protagonist is Pedro, a rural Colombian 15-year old.  He loves his family, his girlfriend, and fishing. When FARC guerrillas execute his peace-loving father, his life is forever changed. FARC will not allow him to bury his father. They banish him and his mother from their family farm, leaving them no way to make a living.  The execution scene is especially powerful because the author manages to show the father’s goodness and courage with minimal dialogue. When they tell him to kneel, he informs his murderers that he will stand. For the first time in his life, he curses at his son, insisting that he take his mother inside and that they both stay there. Pedro’s mother listens, he does not. His father dies in front of him.

When the police can do nothing to help Pedro seek justice for his father, he joins the vigilante group. Here, Young pulls no punches. The brutality that the boys go through in the Autodefensa training was too much for me, personally. I often needed to skim. These scenes were not practically gory, but Young takes pains to convey the Nazi-like disregard for life, friend or foe, instilled in the boys. As the pages add up, Pedro becomes accustomed to torture and death and moves up the chain of command. Even as he becomes part of a world of unspeakable violence, the author manages to keep Pedro an adolescent with teenage concerns.  Will his mother ever forgive him for joining Autodefensa? Can he win his girlfriend back? Will his best friend remain his friend? He is determined to leave the group once he has killed those involved in his father’s murder, but wonders, after that, will there be anything left of the old Pedro. What sort of man will he become?  Would his father be proud or disgusted with him?

The author took seven years to write this novel, complete with its glossary of Spanish terms and slang. I believe Young’s debut novel, “Colombiano” has the makings of a YA classic. It has enough action, romance, historical fiction, and a coming-of-age plot to please a wide breadth of readers.  Yet, I found the book to be too long. I love many long novels, but each battle in “Colombiano” is explained with such rigorous detail that repetition becomes inevitable. Sometimes, it reads more like history than historical fiction. Still, I find the novel to be a compelling and eye-opening read on Colombia’s history from the 1960s to the present. An intellectual page-turner for readers of all ages.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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