Behind the Eyes by Francisco X. Stork is a quick but thoughtful read, and a window into the difficulties that face adolescents, especially those living in housing projects. Behind the Eyes tells the story, in an flashback-filled fashion that builds suspense, of sixteen-year-old Hector Robles. Hector grew up in a housing project in El Paso, TX. He lives with his mother, older brother, and younger sister, his father having died a year earlier. Hector is a good student and even an altar boy, who has spent his years trying to stay out from under the radar of the local gang, the Discipulos. His older brother, Filiberto, is not so careful, however, and drags the family into trouble. The book begins in compelling fashion:
"Hector missed his brother's wake. He missed the funeral. Dr. Hernandez, the intern who treated him in the emergency room, had told him it would be at least a week before he could leave. The ear, the ribs, the spleen, all had to be evaluated. All needed stillness in order to begin to heal."
Though we don't know the details at first, it becomes clear that Hector has gotten himself into trouble over the matter of his brother's death. Both legal trouble and trouble with the Discipulos. A social worker offers him an out, one which he has little choice but to accept: admission/sentencing to Furman, a San Antonio school for troubled youths who are believed to have some chance of redemption.
Furman is a military school, one with locks and wire fences, filled with an array of juvenile delinquents. Hector has a rough start, but eventually finds himself learning from the teachers and the other students. He also encounters an unexpected enemy, and must use his new skills and friendships to save himself from disaster.
I liked Hector a lot. His reaction to his own intelligence is in some ways matter-of-fact - he just does better in school than other people. His family set him aside from an early age as the smart one, his parents learning English so that they could make sure he spoke English well, his father saving for him to go to college, working in a job that he didn't like to protect his younger son's future. And yet he has some ambivalence about the whole thing, too, about how differently things turned out for his brother, and about his responsibilities towards his mother and sister. And about fear and anger and courage.
Hector ends up learning his biggest lessons from a convicted murderer named Diaz, from whom he takes "Dumbells for the Mind" (an exercise and mediation class). Here is an excerpt, in which Diaz talks to Hector:
""For me, the way toward fearlessness was to go back over my life and look at the things I was afraid of. Not with blame or anger, but with the strength and calm concentration that the weight lifting had given me. The toughest part was facing the different ways I had been, was, and would always be a coward in one form or another."
Diaz's words shocked Hector at first. Then, after a moment, he felt the block of ice in his chest begin to melt."
Despite my different background from Hector's, Diaz's words gripped me, too. Struggling to figure out who you are and how best to use the resources that you are given are universal issues that face most adolescents (and adults, for that matter).
Francisco Stork was a Mexican immigrant who lived with his mother in a housing project in El Paso during his teen years. He was awarded a scholarship to a local Jesuit High School, and eventually received a full scholarship to a college in Alabama. I think that what makes this book work is the authenticity of Hector's interactions with his family, his peers, and his enemies. This book could have come across as preachy. There is, for example, a scene where the Furman kids go to visit a local prison, to see what things will be like for them if they don't straighten themselves out. This scene could have been moralistic, but wasn't. While I was reading it, I was mostly just thinking about the characters, and how they were reacting to the situation, not at all about the situation being lesson-based. Hector's two friends, the loquacious X-Lax and the stalwart but academically struggling Sanson, both feel completely real, and like people that I would like to meet.
I think that Behind the Eyes will appeal to kids looking for edgier stories, and will especially appeal to kids from Chicano and other immigrant families. There are many Spanish phrases sprinkled throughout the book, with no translation, but they are mostly clear from content, and are essential to the realism of the dialogue. If I was a librarian working with kids at risk from gangs, I would definitely hand them this title. And if I was working with any set of kids who could benefit from seeing a different perspective, I'd hand them this title, too.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.