Sandwiched between sister Kate and brother Nate, Milly Kaufman is the only adopted child of their Jewish father and Mormon mother. She began life with the name Milagros (as in ‘miracles’), until she was claimed as an infant by parents working with the Peace Corps in a troubled, never-named Latin American country. While the family has always been candid about her birth, 16-year-old Milly just wants to fit in with the rest of their small Vermont town.
Milly’s faraway past arrives at school one day with the appearance of new student Pablo Bolivar, a refugee from her birthcountry. She overcomes her initial discomfort when their families begin to spend more time together, and Pablo proves to be a gentle, thoughtful soul who, in spite of his youth, has seen too much of a violent, troubled world.
As both families grow closer, Milly wonders more openly about her own history. When she inadvertently finds out that her wealthy grandmother’s revised will treats her differently from the other grandchildren, her concept of family shifts – and, for the first time, she’s ready to find out who she really is.
When new elections allow the Bolivars to return to their home country that summer, Milly decides to accompany them, even as her parents worry – her sister Kate most of all – that they are losing their little girl. Buffered by the extended Bolivar clan – especially by Pablo who becomes her guide, confidante, and more – Milly learns of her country’s horrific history … to which her own past is inextricably linked.
Julia Alvarez, whose own turbulent family history in the Dominican Republic has inspired multiple bestselling titles (most notably How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies), treads an uneven line in Miracles, shifting between something akin to a happily-ever-after fairy tale and shockingly gory nightmare.
The miraculous coincidences Milly experiences in her birthcountry (finding someone connected to her orphanage almost on arrival, for example) seem just too convenient. Her selfish grandmother (who comes with her own European Jewish family baggage) has too easy a redemptive turnaround. To the other extreme, the horrors Milly learns that are part of her personal history seem far too graphic and gruesome for a middle grade/young adult title, as well as just too jarring with the rest of the story.
Disappointments aside, Daphne Rubin-Vega (who also narrates Alvarez’s Once Upon a Quinceañera) will convince you to keep the ‘play’-button on, bestowing gravitas on Milly’s growing awareness. What might occasionally flounder on the page definitely gets a lift from her husky, emotive voice. Now you know your options, choose wisely.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult