Hardcover Juvenile fiction, 288 pages.
Includes Glossary, Author’s Note, and Classroom material.
How the book opens:
If someone were to ask me to describe a home, I would tell them this.
A home never floods during a typhoon.
A home as a kitchen with a stove for cooking rice.
A home does not have dead people inside it.
Twelve year old Nora is clinging to the hope that her and her mother Lorna’s situation will be a temporary one, even as she watches her mother disassemble into a dangerous gambling addiction.
It’s been over a year since the fire that took her father. While they’d been taken in by his relatives, the situation was so untenable, Nora and her mother left to live in the cemetery. They take shelter in Nora’s father’s family grave house in North Cemetery in Manila. The cemetery is heavily populated by the living, squatting in family mausoleums, sleeping atop tombs, or in homes constructed from found materials; subsisting and reliant upon the community formed among them.
Nora makes and sells garlands of dried everlasting daisies* to drape on graves or altars (see book cover). Between that and her work as a labandera, a “laundrywoman who washes clothes by hand” (glossary), Nora hopes to save enough money to buy manicure supplies. Doing manicures would earn her enough for a school uniform and supplies so she can attend public school. If she hustles, Nora will have missed only one school year. In the meantime, a teacher brings a cart with supplies and sets up a schoolroom for the cemetery children once a week—a lifeline to her desire to become an educated woman.
Other plans include Tito Danny (Lorna’s brother) who lives on a farm on Davao. He promises he will send for them once he saves enough money for their transportation. That is the plan, especially if Nora and her mother can’t find a way forward in Manila. And finding their way is increasingly unlikely due to Lorna’s mahjong habit.
It had been scary to live here at first, but Mama told me that the living would do us greater harm than the dead ever could (50).
It isn’t unusual for Lorna to be out late, playing most of a night, but she’s always come home—until she doesn’t. Nora has no idea where she could be. Worse, their last interaction was a tense one—the mahjong habit had cost them work, and money. With the help of a slightly older boy, Jojo, a native to the cemetery, Nora hopes to track down her mother. In doing so, she uncovers some awful truths and they find themselves in some serious scrapes along the way. This is my second middle-grade novel this week populated with loan sharks.** Tiger is terrifying. Cruz may resolve the novel in an hopeful place, the novel doesn’t look away from the peril Nora’s situation would involve.
Not that Nora doesn’t find joy and a kind of family in the cemetery. Grieving the loss of her father, and their life before the fire, Nora finds her way forward in believing her situation to be blip. When her escape plans become threatened, in large part by her mother’s disappearance, her perspective begins to shift. She has to rely more heavily on those around her and in doing so, she learns important lessons on what makes up a life.
Nora struggles with humiliations that come with poverty, but the novel never evokes a sensation of pity. Cruz doesn’t flinch from the hardships, but she crafts an immutable human dignity into every one of her characters—minus the villains, because they’ve traded in their humanity somewhere along the way. Respect is invoked in descriptions of settings, in characterizations, and in the internal/external dialogs. Perhaps it’s Cruz’s allowance for complexity.
Nora is an intelligent, resourceful, and emotionally expressive character who Cruz writes with a lovely balance of daring and humility. Jojo and his grandmother both are easy to love; as is Nora’s father in memory; and Evelyn. It’s the story of Nora and her mother that impresses me most in Everlasting Nora.
Lorna, however foolishly or ignorantly or helplessly, endangers her daughter’s life. And when she comes home, she becomes deathly ill. In all this we learn how capable Nora is, and how cared for by her friends and neighbors she is, but what Cruz does well is remind us, too, that Nora is a child grieving the loss of one parent, and is a child who loves and needs her mother. And what is lovely despite all the love and need, Nora is allowed to feel anger and disappointment. The reader is drawn not only to empathize with Nora, but journey alongside Nora as she comes to empathize with the missing and then incapacitated mother—which makes a particular revelation by the mother especially painful to confront. Lorna’s request for forgiveness is a tense scene and one, I’m sure, must’ve been difficult to write.
Nora commands the point of view, and while she thinks about what her mother has taught her, she isn’t consciously informing the reader how she may be like her mother. That makes sense though, and is expected. But, it’s the problem of the watch that really caught my attention here. The only physical thing Nora has left of her father is his watch, which comes with an important family story. Nora’s unwillingness/inability to relinquish that watch contributes to loss of their home with the relatives. Once Tiger takes it from her, she holds a singular focus to get it back—endangering her (new) best friend’s life (more than once). The reason for the retrieval of the watch has changed by the end of the novel, but motives change. I’m not interested in drawing moral equivalents between a Mahjong Addiction and Family Heirlooms; but how they create a parallel of risk-taking in Lorna and Nora’s story is of interest. Both are involved in a loss of home; the physical endangerment and violence enacted on people they care about, as well as themselves; reckless decision-making; both could mean money they desperately need.
The situations characters find themselves in are not cut-and-dried; there is a history; there are contexts. Every relationship has a story. This is the kind of narrative Everlasting Nora has to offer; a novel of stories told by the living and the dead, in a cemetery and its city.
Cruz constructs and infuses her novel with details both lived and researched. In the notes at the back, she offers links to research and to organizations helping those living in the real-life North Cemetery in Manila, and similar situation.
Cruz successfully manages the difficult task of transporting her reader to the Philippines: with sets, and food, and cultural practice; without overwhelming the plot or the reader, nor losing any emotional momentum. That said, foodies will really appreciate all the food descriptions; so will those who stress-eat.
Recommended for all the libraries, and for readers who like to read about real-life and across cultural and economic strata; for those who need greater diversity; for those who want to travel; for those looking for positive female and male characters (Jojo models a sensitive young masculinity I know some of you are looking for in you middle-grade reads).
*or strawflowers as you may know them—one of my favorite flowers, actually.
** Front Desk by Kelly Yang, too, employs loan sharks, human trafficking and exploitation.