ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BRIDGE
By Ray Villarreal
Published in 2014 by Arte Publico Press.
Reviewed by Debi Christensen.
Seventh grader Lonnie Rodriguez faces horrors greater than those he and his father enjoy watching in old movies. Named after horror film star actor Lon Chaney, Lonnie’s life is in upheaval when his mother becomes a shooting victim during her routine shift as an apartment security guard. Lonnie’s last words with his mom were in defiance of her accusation that he was a liar—and huge disappointment—when she confronts him about being an accomplice to vandalism.
A friend’s mother refers to Lonnie as el vago: a lazy, no-good street wanderer. Villarreal characterizes Lonnie as a middle school student with reading difficulties and little engagement in studies. Church services do not engage Lonnie; he skips them to go to the creek. His friend Jo Marie quotes Bible verses to him, but he is not interested.
Lonnie’s father slips further into alcoholism, leaving Lonnie to take over household responsibilities. Lonnie and his dad sell their possessions, including Lonnie’s beloved horror movie collection. His father’s unemployment check will not cover basic expenses, and through no fault of Lonnie’s, they lose their house and become homeless. Refusing to accept family handouts, they live in a motel. Lonnie learns that getting back on their feet can only happen when they accept help and begin making good choices.
A burglary leaves no other option for Lonnie and his dad; they move into a shelter for the homeless, even though Lonnie is temporarily at greater danger from the older men on the shelter’s third floor. When moved to a family room, Lonnie’s dad begins attending AA meetings and going to “catch-out” jobs. At one of these jobs, he is offered fulltime employment by his former employer.
Lonnie makes better decisions about school and improves his reading skills, and with the help of Jo Marie and the church, he launches a campaign to collect toiletries for those staying at the shelter and he realizes how proud his mom would have been of him.
Villarreal chronicles the imminent peril of becoming homeless – a reality for many families who are one paycheck or disaster from losing everything they have. Villarreal depicts scenes leading to the final catastrophic event that throws father and son onto the streets for survival. The reality of costly living in a cheap motor court motel, the lack of healthy food options, the fight for safety and keeping the few personal possessions they have left, and the submission to alcohol as a means of coping are all believable effects of homelessness.
The situation in which Lonnie finds himself is also creditable: he is failing in school, skipping church, flirting with criminal activity, and his father is an alcoholic. The young pre-teen must figure out how to get himself and his father back on track.
This novel is a fast read depicting the real challenges of one preteen’s becoming homeless and finding his way back. Villarreal’s style is brisk and engaging. Holding the attention of young adolescents and the hearts of educators, this novel shows that horror can be overcome and family can prevail in the journey home.
Debi Christensen, M. Ed., CPC and ELI-MP, is a writer, speaker and life/leadership coach living in Wimberley, Texas, where she currently is writing a YA novel. Follow her on Twitter at debi.christensen and visit her website.