Right before his last Spring Break before graduating from high school, seventeen-year-old Jay learns that his Filipino cousin Jun is dead, apparently killed as an addict and drug dealer in President Duterte’s war on drugs. Jun’s father, a regional police inspector who supports Duterte’s suspension of civil law, is not only providing the family with no further information but is refusing to hold a funeral for him. Jay’s parents are tight-lipped, telling their son there is nothing to be done to persuade their overseas relative to do otherwise.
Jay feels particularly guilty because although he and Jun had been close, exchanging regular letters over the years, Jay had stopped responding to his cousin when he became involved with his first girlfriend. As he rereads the letters Jun wrote him and after he receives some mysterious text messages, he determines to go over to the Philippines to find out exactly what happened. As his Filipino father and American mother reluctantly agree to his solo trip overseas, Jay promises not to mention Jun to his uncle and frames the trip as an opportunity to revisit his home country before returning to start his college career at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Hampered not only by his lack of fluency in the various languages spoken by his family in the Philippines but also by everyone’s fear of speaking out about the dangerous social/political climate in the country, Jay quickly alienates his police-chief uncle and moves out of his house to go stay with his aunt and her partner in the “slums.” Along the way he finds surprising allies in Jun’s sister, Grace, and her journalist friend, Mia, and he begins to unravel the true story of Jun’s death.
This well-written, fascinating book challenges its readers to examine social issues beyond the scope of the usual YA novel (human trafficking, dictatorial authority and suspension of civil rights, the realities of slum life and its grinding poverty, the role of religion and the church in addressing human suffering, the duality and complexity of human nature, the importance of finding one’s “voice,” the amount of work and patience required to establish authentic relationships). Sounds heavy, doesn’t it? Framed within the friendship of the two cousins, however, the story flows smoothly and with a lyricism not common to the YA genre.
Violence, profanity, references to sex trafficking are present.
Categories: Addiction, Asian Culture, Books We Recommend, Bullying, Civil Rights, Crime, Death and Grieving, Dysfunctional Relationships, Grief, LGBTQIA, Navigating through High School, Offensive Language in YA Literature, Parent Conflict, Peer Relationships, Political Activism, Political Terrorism, Social Disorders, Social Media, Violence