SVH #42: Caught in the Middle

19 Oct

Estimated Time Elapsed: 2 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Ugh.  Sandra Bacon and Maunuel Lopez have started dating and are totally in love, but they have to keep their relationship a secret because Sandra’s parents totally hate Mexicans.  I feel like we’ve done this plot before. At any rate, Manuel is getting tired of Sandra keeping their relationship a secret from her totally racist parents.  Sandra feels trapped because she loves Manuel and her parents, and she doesn’t know what to do, so she keeps lying to her parents and telling them she’s at her best friend Jean West’s house instead of telling them she’s hanging out with a Mexican boy.

Liz gets involved because that’s how she is.  She urges Sandra to tell her parents.  Sandra tries to but keeps chickening out.  Manuel is also pressuring her, and she can see how hurt he is but she still can’t bring herself to do it.  Liz tags along on a boating trip with Sandra and Manuel, and the boat explodes (?).  Sandra is knocked unconscious by the blast, and Manuel swims her to safety, but when the police and paramedics arrive, she begs Liz to say that she saved her.  Sandra’s parents would just die if they knew a Mexican had been on their boat.  Or something.

Understandably, Liz is upset about having to play the hero.  Things are complicated when witnesses say that they saw a Mexican lurking around the boat before it took off.  The police suspect foul play, and they bring Manuel in for questioning.  Sandra and her parents are there as well, and her parents push her to identify Manuel as the scapegoat for the boat’s explosion.  Sandra pretends not to know him at first and then breaks down crying, finally telling her parents the truth.  Both of them are unsettled about the idea of their white child dating someone from another race, but they make some sort of effort to understand because he saved her life.

The B-Plot involves Lila’s impending birthday.  Jessica is planning a surprise party for her but doesn’t want to let her know about it, so she has everyone be really callous about Lila’s birthday.  Lila is furious with her all the way up to the party at the Wakefield’s house, where she is so surprised that she almost falls over.  It is a success.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “‘Yeah,’ Sandra sighed. ‘Sad to say, but true.  And it isn’t just a superficial prejudice with them.  I know how they really feel, and they’d kill me, absolutely kill me, if they knew about Manuel.'” (10)
  • “‘Sure,’ Manuel said, his voice bitter.  ‘I know.  All my life I’ve met people like that, basically good people, who think just because my last name is Lopez and my skin is brown instead of white, that I’m not worth bothering with…I guess in a community like this one, you get used to prejudice, and you learn to live with it.'” (33)

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • This is Lila’s second birthday party.  She has turned sixteen again?  Or is she seventeen?  I can’t tell.
  • The word “racist” is never once mentioned in this book when describing Sandra’s parents.

(Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m having a hard time with this one.  Obviously, we have to talk about the racism that runs rampant in this book, but it’s a slippery slope.  As a white woman who grew up in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class suburb, I have firsthand experience with the kind of racism and prejudice that is ingrained in a community like (fictional) Sweet Valley.  The fact that Sandra’s parents are total racists doesn’t surprise me; the fact that the word “racist” is never used does.

Sandra’s parents are both completely ignorant.  Her father has written some letters to the local paper complaining about the immigrant population in the community.  Her mother remembers with horror the racial tension that existed in the town she grew up in.  She also worries about racial riots, but these issues are talked about in only the most vague way possible.  She tells Sandy that she doesn’t want her to associate with “those kinds of people,” and tries to remind her of how different Mexicans are from their own family.  Sandy is understandably confused and upset by this, but the issue is never talked about in depth.

My issue with this book’s central theme is that it’s dealt with so superficially.  The “othering” of Manuel and his family (and all Mexican-Americans) is done even in the passages where the reader is supposed to understand Sandra’s attraction to and love for Manuel.  The ghost writer goes on and on about how different Manuel looks from other boys, focusing on his accent, his dark features, and the fact that he looks older than other boys Sandra’s age.

Near the end of the book, after the big reveal about their relationship, the ghost writer throws in a line about how a lifetime of prejudices (still not the word “racism”) cannot be overturned in a moment.  This feels like too little too late.  I realize that these books were written for a younger audience, but that doesn’t mean that an actual conversation about race couldn’t take place.  Giving us the after-school-special-lite version seems like a total cop-out, even for Sweet Valley.

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One Response to “SVH #42: Caught in the Middle”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. SVH Magna Edition: Jessica’s Secret Diary, Vol. II | A Critical Analysis of Sweet Valley's Most Famous Twins - August 21, 2015

    […] While Sandra and Michael are thinking about eloping at 16 because their parents just don’t understand, Jessica plans a surprise party for Lila and gets a friendly letter from Todd in the mail, even though they are not friends, are often openly hostile about one another, and didn’t hang out before he moved away.  Jessica uses the letter as an excuse to tease Liz about Todd, which seems mean. […]

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