How many teens have wished they could escape the darkness of their lives and live in a land of milk and honey? Rico Fuentes does just that in DARK DUDE by Oscar Hijuelos.
Rico is one-hundred-percent Cuban, yet he struggles daily to identify with his Cuban peers. His mom and little sister have brunette hair and cinnamon colored skin. His dad has both dark wavy hair and dark eyes. But Rico, with hazel eyes and fair skin with freckles, looks white. In Harlem, that pretty much guarantees daily harassment.
When Rico has to change to a public school, he is exposed to drugs, crime, and violence like never before. Early in the school year, a student is shot and Rico watches in shock as his new classmates celebrate a day off. Soon Rico's skipping school to avoid random beatings. When his pops finds out, he warns Rico that he'll be spending the summer with his military uncle in Florida.
It's not until his friend Jimmy is rushed to the hospital due to a drug-related accident that Rico realizes he has only one way out. He must find a way to Wisconsin to stay with his friend, Gilberto, on his farm. When Jimmy is released, Rico talks him into going to Wisconsin with him. After a road trip to remember on the way to the farm, they wonder what they've gotten themselves into when Gilberto immediately puts them to work painting the outside of the dilapidated farmhouse in exchange for their room and board.
Rico finds farm life in Wisconsin to be much slower than in Harlem. He spends a lot of time re-reading his favorite author, Mark Twain. Then he finds himself attracted to a girl whose father has a drinking problem. He'd never realized that his own experiences with an alcoholic dad could be helpful to someone else. As the months go by, Rico begins to look at himself, and those around him, differently. More importantly, he begins to accept himself.
DARK DUDE is a gritty read. The projects, the bars, and the backstreets of Harlem become real to the reader as Mr. Hijuelos drops you into each scene, and he creates a character with so much promise, but with so much working against him, that we cannot stop at each chapter break. Instead we read on, praying that nothing bad will happen to Rico, and when it does, we find ourselves urging Rico on, to find the best in himself, to reach for those dreams we know he wants. This is a realistic yet inspiring read for anyone who wants to find a way to make a different choice, to find the person they really want to be.
Reviewed by: Cana Rensberger