Pam Munoz Ryan's fictionalized biography of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is austere and beautiful.
I asked myself two days into reading it why it was taking me so long to get through it. My girlfriend, upon seeing the large, almost elementary school print, asked me the same thing. When I finally finished it, I realized it isn't that it took me long for any other reason than I was savoring it. I read lines repeatedly; I did the same with entire pages. I stared at the simple and poignant artwork. I closed the book and let it sit...because I wanted it to last. What you will find so surprising is how these simple pages can produce and evoke that type of reaction.
Some of it is Ryan's fascinating writing and much of it is within Neruda's enchanting childhood perspective.
The novel is Ryan's account of Neruda's development and meteoric rise from a pressure-filled childhood through an adulthood where his own government railed against him. Ryan based her telling of Neruda's story on the work of past biographers as well as from the knowledge of friends and colleagues. Her focus is on a shy and thin child raised by an obdurate and bullying father. A father who did not support his son being a dreamer, a writer, a poet. Yet, Neruda observed everything and collected more. Father chastized son for being too thin, sickly, and a day-dreamer. Yet, we learn his strength was not in bone and sinew, but in mind, heart, and soul. His father intimidated his children and wife; eventually embarrassed by his son's gift with writing, he burns everything he ever wrote. The young Neruda learns that even when things are burned there is an ember...somewhere...just waiting for breath and new life.
The anecdotes of Neruda's childhood are true and telling and poetic. My favorite is Neruda's encounter with a pair of swans while away for the summer with part of his family. Brought to the ocean only to be cruelly thrown into it every morning by his father in the hopes that the thin and physically weak Neruda would swim and strengthen his body, the observant and sensitive boy found something else to occupy his attention...he fed two swans each day.
The swans were clearly mates. When one is killed by hunters and the other wounded and left bleeding to death, the young crestfallen Neruda found the surviving swan and nursed him back to relative health; yet, it never would swim again...it only sank each time it was placed in the water. The young boy bonds with swan and works diligently to restore it to its initial joy and happiness. As the swan lays its head against his Neruda's arm and breathes its last breath, I found myself hoping the story was true. After reading the Author's Notes my hope was confirmed. Such a beautiful and telling moment in the novel.
Ryan took a childhood of a boy who was clearly passionate and sensitive at a young age and brought that spirit to the page. Her writing style is misleading--because of the size of the font and the simple language the reader is caught off-guard. Each anecdote asks you to think, and then you turn the page where only an isolated line of poetry is set along with a corresponding image. You can't rush through these pages; you can't rush through these stories; you can't rush through this book. You have to savor Ryan's language. She does the great poet justice.
There is certainly something to be considered by Neruda's poetry (one of the most widely read poets in the world) no doubt...but Ryan's books holds his childhood and his core as a developing human being up for the reader to consider as well. The book is aptly titled The Dreamer not only because Neruda was one, but like many of the questions posed by Ryan (and Neruda) the reader inevitably asks himself, "do I dream...enough?"
While it is brilliant to hand this book to a young person as an introduction to one of humanity's gifts with a pen, hand this book to a young person if for no other reason so that you can ask him/her, "Do you dream...enough?"