There is something about verse novels that seems to make them an ideal medium for telling difficult, tragic, horrible stories. The abuse that the military government in Guatemala imposed on its citizens for forty long years is one of those stories. In Caminar Skila Brown tells the tense, heartbreaking, suspenseful story of Carlos, a boy who is old and strong enough to "break the wood into small pieces and feed / our fire," but, his mother tells him, not ready to cut down a tree. It is 1981 and Carlos and his mother live in Chopán, a fictional village at the foot of a tall mountain in rural Guatemala. Brown uses concrete poems, with Carlos narrating, to great effect, employing handfuls of words and thoughtful spacing to add emotion and expression to an already emotional story.
Through Carlos's eyes, we see the village and its inhabitants, from friends like Roberto, whose brother Davíd was forced into the army by soldiers, his father "disappeared" for trying to stop them, and Flora, living with her extended family in one noisy, crowded, happy home. Sadness and fear are part of Caminar from the start, soldiers having set up camp outside their village earlier in the year, hanging one of the men for being a communist the night before they left. Carlos's mother works to keep him a child for as long as possible in a effort to push back the day when soldiers might take him, but it is a losing battle. The village is shaken again when guerillas pass through on their way up the mountain. Knowing that, if the guerillas are spotted anywhere near Chopán by the helicopters that fly by from time to time, the soldiers will return and kill everyone indiscriminately and burn everything down, Mama tells Carlos that, the moment they sense danger, he must run into the mountains and hide in the trees, then to go to the village at the top of the mountain where his grandmother lives.
When the moment comes, Carlos is away from the village collecting mushrooms for his mother. With an eerie sense of what is happening outside of the woods, he runs as his mother told him to. While he saves his life, he doubts his manliness and bravery. This self doubt continues to affect him as he crosses paths with the guerillas on his journey deep into the mountains. They are friendly and even helpful, sharing their food and convincing him to take off his sky blue sweater so that he blends in better with the foliage. As his story unfolds and he continues to hide in the trees, Carlos is visited by an owl again and again. Sometimes the owl takes him flying over his village, showing him the shallow mass grave near the lake, the sad fate of his family and friends. Carlos begins to wonder if this owl could be his nahual, a spirit animal. The climax of Caminar comes when Carlos is given another chance to prove his strength and worth. The helicopters return, hunting the guerillas, just as they are about to reach the village at the top of the mountain. Knowing what the fate of the village will be when the helicopters reach it, Carlos has to make a serious, immediate decision.
Brown herself spent five months in Guatemala as she worked on this novel, as she says in a Q&A at the end of the novel, which comes after a glossary. Caminar is a much needed glimpse into the history of Latin America and is told in a way that will engage readers and inspire them to learn more about this country, this period in history, communism and the memorials that have been built to honor the dead and the missing. Caminar is a very welcome addition to the shelves!