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The Whole Wide World, by Yvonne Castaneda

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There’s this novel; it’s about a twenty-something, first generation Hispanic-American woman engaged in a struggle to find herself. Over the course of the book, she draws strength from her childhood and her immigrant parents and finds meaning in her life as a teacher of troubled inner-city children.

OK, you’re cringing now, aren’t you? You’re thinking: hopelessly trite after school special. You’re thinking of weepy Oprah-esque sentimentality. You’re thinking of a story that redefines maudlin. Luckily, you’re wrong, for two reasons.

First, there is no heavy-handed moralizing. The lead character, Bibiana (Bibi), like most mid-twenty-somethings, feels she knows the world well-enough to succeed in it, but really only has a superficial understanding of life and herself. She is convinced she wants to make a difference, but this desire does not manifest in sanctimony. The approach is from a much more ironic, chick-lit sort of angle. In fact, Bibi is less worried about grave social issues and more about how to deal with “the wild animal on her head” and how to get close to a particularly studly fellow teacher.

Second, Bibi’s teaching experiences are really only a framework, an excuse for her to reminisce about growing up in her rather eccentric Mexican-Cuban family. Where Bibi came from turns out to be much more interesting that where she is going. Whereas the characters in Bibi’s current life seem to be little more than convenient plot devices, Bibi’s family members are full of conflict on complications and good humor.

The family stories Bibi tells cover most of her life, starting in early childhood when her family packs up and leaves East L.A. in the face of rising crime. After a country-wide road trip they end up settling in Miami, all the while telling Bibi they were just going on vacation. Bibi grows up fascinated with her extended family, some of whom are poorly behaved to say the least. In her childhood years, she is a nerdy, fat child who is constantly seeking approval from a big brother who wants nothing to do with her. In her adolescent years she gains confidence while losing weight and blossoms into an inquisitive thoughtful young woman. In time she leaves home and becomes a typical lost young adult.

These stories, which have a clearly autobiographical ring to them, are told either through flashbacks or as a mechanism for Bibi to calm her unruly class of “at-risk” students. They are the both the heart of the book and the heart of Bibi, who draws identity, character and perspective from them when she is at her lowest points. Perhaps the most telling is that, when you set aside the parent’s accents, the misunderstandings when trying to understand English, and the south-of-the-border geographic references, Bibi’s very Hispanic family turns out to be virtually no different from your standard apple pie American family. Normalcy, it seems, can be a home base for someone who’s lost.

If there is a criticism to be made of The Whole Wide World it is in the lack of focus. There seem to be two stories here; Bibi’s nascent career as a teacher and Bibi’s memories of childhood and adolescence. Finding a solid link between the two can be a bit of a strain. But Castaneda writes in a very casual, easy-reading, conversational tone; leaving one with the sense of having had a long conversation over drinks with a particularly chatty friend. In such a setting, one doesn’t need solid structure for a good experience.

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