MTYT: Beast Rider

Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Spokane, WA and Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

This week, Marilyn and Holly give their takes on Beast Rider by Tony Johnston and Marïa Elena Fontanot de Rhoads and the kindness that helps Manuel on his painful and difficult journey to his brother.

MARILYN: The clear voice of Manuel narrates his powerful story in Beast Rider of how as a twelve year-old he left his family in Oaxaca, Mexico to join his older brother, Toño, who has gone North to Los Angeles on the freight trains known as The Beast. “The Beast is a network of freight trains that move from southern Mexico to the U.S. border.” La Bestia is a deadly way to travel. Getting on and staying on are hard in themselves. Sometimes a rider goes to sleep and falls from the train, to be maimed or killed… Gangs swarm the tops of train cars looking for victims.” (from the Authors’ Note)

Manuel dearly loves Toño. That love sustains him on the perilous journey that takes over three years because of the injuries and hardships he experiences. Along the way sainted people care for him after he is robbed and gravely injured by a gang attack. “I am broken but unbroken. Bones si, spirit no.” He is tenderly nursed back to health by the kindness of “Serafina and the many good souls of a dusty village.”

After Manuel heals, he finally makes it to the border riding atop The Beast. The journey continues across the Rio Grande with the help of a coyote that his brother pays. In Los Angeles Manuel lives with Toño as he struggles to find a place for himself and to recover from the trauma of his journey.

In Los Angeles a new relationship opens to Manuel. He and a solemn neighbor, Mr. James Ito, begin to share stories. “Like tears held in for a very long time, out the words come. Pouring pouring. Mine is an ugly tale, apart from the few saints who float in and out.” That telling is healing when he realizes “…how much goodness has been woven into my story.” That healing comes about because Mr. James Ito, quietly listens to Manuel who has been friendless. Mr. Ito’s gentle kindness helps Manuel to recover.

There are several people in the story who offer Manuel kindness and support. First, Manuel receives loving kindness from his family, father, grandmother, and finally his brother in L.A. Then several others help him on his journey. Finally, Mr. James Ito became Manuel’s guide and friend. It is interesting that some of these kind people have the names of angels.

What stood out to you Holly, about this story?

HOLLY: I was deeply invested in this story, Marilyn. I caught myself holding my breath a number of times when reading about the multiple hazards Manuel encountered on his journey to Los Angeles. Other times I was shocked at the cruelty of those he encountered, but it was the acts of kindness that were really inspirational. All along Manuel’s journey, there were those who encouraged him, gave him food, and nursed him back to health when he was left for dead by bandits who prey on those who attempt to ride The Beast. But, I think the one incident I loved the most was when the “Warrior Woman,” one of the women who have lost their husbands or sons to The Beast, stood between Manuel and the police officer who was intent on keeping Manuel and others off the train—The Beast–that would take them closer to the border.

I was also surprised by how long it took Manuel to get to Los Angeles. Three years! He left his grandparents when he was 12 to find his older brother, and he arrived when he was 15. I still wonder if that is the average time it might take someone to get across the border, and I am amazed at the tenacity and courage it would take to make such a journey. Without those who showed him small and great kindnesses along the way, Manuel would be just another boy lost to The Beast, and to the hope of being united with his brother. What did you especially appreciate about this narrative, Marilyn?

MARILYN: One reason I appreciate this narrative is that is opens the reader’s understanding about why people from other countries take the dangerous journey to the U.S. When I first read this book, I saw that so many parts of the story are right out of newspaper headlines. I was interested to find out about what inspired Tony to write this story. So I called her to ask about the story origins and ended up interviewing Tony who has been a dear friend for many years. You can view that interview in the Author Corner part of the WOW webpage.

Tony had her first inspiration for telling a story of migrants riding freight trains when she read a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times by Sonia Nazario. Those articles were later awarded two Pulitzer Prizes both for reporting and photographs. Later, Nazario turned her articles into a book, Enrique’s Journey. That true account of young boy traveling on the Beast to the U.S. from Honduras inspired Tony to find out more. Enrique traveled 122 days and made six failed trips before he made it to his mother in North Carolina on his seventh trip. Other accounts I read about migrants also showed that sometimes the trip takes many attempts. In Manuel’s case because he was so badly injured twice, it took sometime for him to recover and to earn enough money to continue on the trip.

I am certain that this story will appeal to many children across our country. When I was a teacher in Los Angeles, many of the sixth grade students I taught told and wrote stories of how they and their families had made their way to the U.S. on dangerous journeys through Mexico. I remember one specific instant when I brought in an article from the Los Angeles Times about a perilous route that migrants were using to cross the border near San Diego. The children became very still as I read the article aloud. When I was done, some of them shared that they and their families had used that same route. I know they would have been riveted by the story of Manuel if it had been available then. Holly, have you ever encountered people who migrated to this country by traveling in dangerous conditions?

HOLLY: Only one, Marilyn, and that was a young man who came to work in the fields of my hometown community way back when I was young. I only knew of him because he was arrested, abused in jail, and they needed someone to interpret for him. I was able to serve in that capacity enough to determine the state had to be involved. The ending of the story is that he was deported and nothing happened to the men who abused him. It was terrible for him, and for the reputation of our community.

I think immigration status is something that must more or less be kept hidden these days, and when I was younger, it just never mattered to me what a person’s citizenship was. I, perhaps naively, accepted that people were generally where they were supposed to be or could be, and took interactions from there. I also knew students whose families migrated a lot for a number of reasons, but stayed out of those discussions with colleagues because it was more detrimental than constructive. It was my job to care for the students in my class, find ways to make their lives less anxiety-ridden. I strongly believe in open borders and there is a nice informational book out entitled, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration (Caplan & Weinersmith, 2019) that explains how open borders is good for everyone. I think everyone should read it, and it is in a graphic format, which can make for an easier read as well.

Title: Beast Rider
Author: Tony Johnston and Marïa Elena Fontanot de Rhoads
ISBN: 978-1419733635
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
PubDate: Marcg 19, 2019

Throughout December 2020, Marilyn Carpenter, Holly Johnson, and Jean Schroeder discuss how kindness shines through dire and horrendous circumstances. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!

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