118 pages • 3 hours readMatt de la Peña
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We Were Here is a Newbury-Award-winning, young adult novel written by Matt De La Pena. Published in 2011, the first person narrative is written in diary form in the voice of the teenaged protagonist, Miguel Castaneda. The story begins with Miguel’s description of his admission to juvenile hall, a detention facility near his family home in Stockton, California. His father, a member of the US Army, was killed in action the preceding year. While the details of the offense that precipitated Miguel’s sentence to one year in a group home are left unclear until the end of the book, the reader infers that there is a significant rift between Miguel and his mother, whom he loves deeply. Conversely, he feels that there is such tension in his home at this point that relocation to the group home may be his best option. His greatest affection appears to be reserved for his older brother, Diego; however, the relationship between the siblings involves fistfights, and their mother is clearly frightened by them.
Miguel’s sentence is contingent upon his keeping a daily journal, which the judge feels may help his counselors to understand him better. Isolated and withdrawn from the other group home residents, Miguel escapes mentally by reading books and writing in his journal. Subsequently, he escapes the group home physically in the company of Mong and Rondell, who are also residents of the home, which is called The Lighthouse.
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Their journey takes them on a tour of southern California via foot, cars and buses; ultimately, two of the young men return to the group home voluntarily in an effort to make amends for their transgressions. The expedition is not only geographic. Each of the young men develops a particular understanding of the unique set of circumstances that have led to their current situation. Miguel, in particular, evolves spiritually and emotionally over the course of the journey.
The novel’s coming-of-age theme is juxtaposed with that of the repercussions of impulsive decision-making and pure bad luck. Miguel becomes aware of the pure randomness that plays a part in the outcome of human lives, and develops an awareness of the impossibility of changing the past. Despite the many human flaws exhibited by the primary characters and those of the individuals they meet during their trek, the novel culminates on an uplifting philosophical note. Reconciling himself to his inability to change the past, and absorbing the painful magnitude of this realization, Miguel makes the pragmatic decision to take incremental steps toward embracing life.
By Matt de la Peña