Beast Rider by Tony Johnson

Beast Rider offers a sympathetic take on the immigration issue through the experience of one Mexican boy.

Beast Rider by Tony Johnson and Maria de Rhodes.  Amulet, 2019, 171 pages

Reading Level: Middle Grades, 10-12

Recommended for: ages 12-15

Manuel Flores and his family have worked their milpita (small farm plot) in Oaxaca, Mexico, for generations.  It’s a spare life, but a good one—with, however, two great gaps.  One is Manuel’s mother, who died when he was very young.  The other is Toño, who hopped aboard a freight four years ago and made his way to Los Angeles.  La Bestia, the train that carried Toño away, is now calling to Manuel.  He knows the dangers: bandits, police and border patrol, and the ruthlessness of the Beast itself, which could cut you in pieces if you fall off.  But he longs for his brother and determines to take the chance.  With a new pair of shoes, his father’s old sweater, and a handful of pesitos he heads for the tracks.

The dangers are not exaggerated. He’s robbed of food and money immediately, his shoes and sweater soon after—but the worst is yet to come when he’s beaten within an inch of his life by a drug gang.  Kind villagers along the way save his life and fortunes, but with recoup and recovery the journey takes almost two years.  Finally he limps into L.A., with an injured hand and pure-white hair—Chavo Viejo, the old kid.  Has he found the Promised Land?

The prose is simple yet beautiful, the experiences heart-wrenching yet not too much to bear—and leavened by grace:

I realize in a moment how much goodness has been woven into my story.  I think from now on I will try to forget the bad.  Papí would say that, like the [corn], good reaches for the light.  I decide.  I also will reach for the light.

With immigrants pressing on the southern border in growing numbers, with not enough officials to process them and not enough facilities to house them, with no real leadership from the White House or Congress, Beast Rider at least brings the problem down to a human level.  Manuel Flores, unlike many refugees, is not fleeing but seeking: his true family, his true home.  His conclusion may surprise readers, but should also encourage them.  The problems are not insolvable, with compassion, good will, and a reasonable policy.

Cautions: Violence and disturbing scenes

Overall Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 4
  • Artistic value: 5

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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