De La Peña, Matt. The Living. New York: Delacorte, 2013.
Matt De La Peña’s The Living follows Shy Espinoza through his new summer job, working on a luxury cruise line. On Shy’s first voyage, he experiences a passenger’s suicide; in fact, Shy grabs the passenger as he falls, but Shy cannot hold on to him well enough to save his life. Shy’s second voyage is not only haunted by the suicide from his first but also by the recent death of his grandmother to Romero Disease. As the cruise ship embarks for Hawaii, readers are struck by differences in social hierarchies between the rich passengers and the lower classes of the crew. Additionally, readers become interested in a potential romance between Shy and Carmen, as well as being won over by the support of Shy’s friends, such as Rodney, Kevin and Carmen. However, any hope for a happy ending is dissolved when “the Big One” hits the west coast, sending tsunamis toward the boat. Most passengers die in the waves that hit the cruise ship; however, some survivors manage to escape on lifeboats and rafts. Unfortunately, Shy and two other passengers are stranded at sea, at the point of death, for five days until they are rescued. However, survival and help are not as straightforward as hoped, and Shy is transferred to yet another dangerous environment, involving an engineered disease that has become an epidemic on the west coast.
Through the thoughts and actions of Shy, De La Peña does a fantastic job of realizing perspective and psychology. Shy has the worries of one from a low-socioeconomic background – he worries about his family’s money and welfare – additionally, he is traumatized by the suicide he witnessed first hand, but on a lighter note, he is also interested in checking out girls in bikinis and desires a romantic relationship with Carmen. Daniel Kraus states The Living can withstand the blending of so many genres because of “Peña’s narrative restraint and commitment to his unusually believable protagonist. Shy is no superhero, and that’s a relief” (115). Shy does his best to do what is right, but he also acknowledges his weaknesses. For example, he admits that he would rather Kevin have survived the tsunamis than Bill, a man that he saved. These admissions do not necessarily reflect his guilt, but his humanity. De La Peña captures Shy’s psychology and his humanity in a passage before Shy is rescued, when he believes he is going to die. Shy realizes, “the world itself was alive, too. It swirled around you and sped past your eyes and ears, so fast you could never see it, but slow at the same time, like a tree growing taller in a park. And all the sounds you heard – the wind whipping past your ears and the ocean’s whispering and the trickle of whitecaps against your boat – that was the earth’s blood pumping through imperceptible veins, and some of those veins were nothing more than people like Shy or Carmen or Addie” (231). Shy’s epiphany is remarkably insightful in its paradoxical nature and the imagery of what gives the world life. Shy considers and questions the world, which is characteristic of young adults who are coming to terms with a more adult world.
The Living also does a wonderful job of representing the Mexican-American experience, as well as that of the lower classes. Moreover, The Living received the 2014 Pura Belpré Honor Award for an outstanding work of literature, representing the Latino cultural experience. School Library Journal states, “while this story features characters who just happen to be Latino, the book is infused with Spanish phrases and references to the culture… [also, Shy] ends up on a life raft with a girl who couldn’t be more different than him: a rich, spoiled white kid” (62). Culture and class are both important aspects of the novel. Hispanic culture is represented through Shy and Carmen, who are both Mexican American and live near the Mexico border in California. Yet, class differences are most apparent between Shy and Addie, a passenger, whose father plays a key role in the epidemic that hits the west coast. Though, after being stranded in the ocean with Addie, Shy considers, “It all came down to this. The darkness. The loneliness. The mystery. The fact that everyone’s days were numbered, and it didn’t matter if you were in premier class or worked in housekeeping. Those were only costumes people wore. And once you stripped them away you saw the truth” (196). De La Peña illustrates that essentially all humans are the same, regardless of culture or background or wealth. Though it is difficult to realize the sameness among people in different classes, when materialism is stripped away, as it is in the novel, it becomes clear.
Lastly, this novel is fast-paced, contains narrative hooks, surprises and tension. Readers are ensnared from the first chapter when Shy tries to save a passenger from committing suicide. The pace just grows from there. Kraus declares, “the tsunami sequence is a straight-up tour de force, a breathless, horrifying dash into the void” (115). The novel does not slow down from there either; readers will be anticipating the sequel that will be released in the fall. Nilsen states that “we crave all sorts of excitement by reading about people who live the adventure and the thrills and chills we have denied ourselves by living in our comfortable and safe world” (228). Though Shay is catapulted into an adventure he did not ask for, the story still appeals to readers’ desires to experience and overcome disaster, without actually having to live it. In the end, Shy perseveres, and readers will want to know how he will resolve the epidemic plaguing the west coast in The Hunted, when the “fight for survival continues” (Peña 309).
Kraus, Daniel. "The Living." Booklist 110.1 (2013): 114-115. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 15 July 2014.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, James Blasingame, Kenneth L. Donelson, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. New York: Pearson, 2013. Print.
Wadham, Tim. "Prize Fights." School Library Journal 60.3 (2014): 62. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 15 July 2014.