Mario Alberto Zambrano
Published July 1, 2014
304 pages (hardcover)
This book begins with an explanation—the “Rules of the Game”:
Lotería is often described as Mexican bingo, a game of chance. The only material difference between bingo and Lotería is that bingo relies on a grid of numbers while Lotería relies on images.
There are fifty-four cards and each comes with a riddle, un dicho. There is a traditional set of riddles, but sometimes dealers create their own to trick the players. After the dealer “sings” the riddle the players cover the appropriate spots on their playing boards, their tablas, with either bottle caps, dried beans, or loose change.
There is more than one way to win depending on what is played. You can win by filling a vertical line, a horizontal line, a diagonal; the four corners, the center squares, or a blackout.
An important rule to remember is that a winner must shout his victory as soon as his winning image is called. If the dealer calls another riddle before the winner declares ¡Lotería!, the player can no longer claim the prize.
What follows are fifty-four chapters, one for each card in the Lotería deck.
The chapters are actually entries in eleven-year-old Luz María Castillo’s journal. Luz, the first “natural-born” in her family, has recently been sent to a children’s home following a family tragedy. Her father is in jail and her aunt, Tencha, can’t have custody unless they move back to Mexico (“I’m waiting for the day she walks in and tells me to pack my bags because we’re going home, wherever that is.”). Julia, Luz’s assigned counselor, tries to get Luz to talk, saying that it will make things easier for Luz and her father, but Luz refuses. Instead, she spends her days going through her Lotería deck and writing in the notebook that Tencha brought to her.
Each of Luz’s journal entries begins with an illustration of a Lotería card, which elicits a memory or story that is (sometimes loosely, sometimes directly) related to the card. Her stories are not told in chronological order, so the details of the family tragedy unfold bit by bit amidst other piecemeal memories that provide background and context.
This is a visually stunning, fast-paced mini-novel (it is about 300 pages, but many of those pages are illustrations or blank filler pages). And let’s be real: pretty and quick go a long way for me in the book department.
Generally speaking, I am opposed to gimmicky books. I am also opposed to split chronologies. Neither of those things bothered me in this book. In fact, they both worked really well. The concept and structure are creative and well executed.
As a whole, Luz’s voice is unique and authentic. It has a style that is derivative of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (imperfect grammar, slangy, peppered with Spanish and Spanglish phrases that are only occasionally translated). Unfortunately, her voice is also the book’s greatest downfall. The book’s overall vibe just isn’t as heavy as it should be. It deals with some dark subject matter (incest, sexual abuse, domestic violence), but it doesn’t do it with the severity it requires. The climax (the chapter based on the “La Estrella” card, which explains the family tragedy that has led to Papi’s imprisonment and Luz being in the children’s home) describes some awful events . . . but somehow comes off as banal and expected. Yes, Luz is eleven, but she is mature—she’s seen some stuff, and she is wiser than her years. The fact that the book is in her voice and from her perspective is, therefore, definitely not an excuse for the lack of depth.
- one of the School Library Journal Best Books 2013
- a Booklist Top 10 First Novels 2013
- a West Book Award Finalist for 2014
- an International Latino Book Award Finalist for 2014
- a 2014 Finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award
Who should read it: Heather C. (bilingual Spanish/English speakers who appreciate beautiful things but can handle heavy subject matter).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz (an Indie Next List Pick for May 2015)
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (winner of the 2013 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature; a 2013 Michael L. Printz Award Nominee; a 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Children’s/Young Adult)