Last month, I listened to the middle-grade novel The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau on audio, and I was captivated by this magical, moving story that links two generations and transported me to a different place and time.
Twelve year-old Mateo travels every summer with his mother from their home in Maryland back to where she grew up in the remote mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, in an area known as the Hill of Dust. Despite the rustic conditions and missing his Xbox and friends, Mateo enjoys these trips that seem to take them back in time, talking with his great-aunts and –uncles. Most of all, he enjoys seeing his Grandpa Teo.
This year, though, Grandpa Teo says he needs Mateo’s help, and he begins telling Mateo a long, involved story of his own childhood on the Hill of Dust. He tells him about when the Gypsies or Romanies used to travel in their caravan to their tiny, remote village. They looked different from the native Mixteco, dressed in beautiful, colorful garments. They’d bring movies to show outside on white sheets hung from the side of the church, as well as their own entertainment and news from other villages. In gratitude, the local Mixteco would trade them hand-woven hats and baskets and locally grown food.
The annual arrival of the Gypsy caravan was a huge event in the tiny village, and Teo, as a young boy, looked forward to it. Besides the entertainment and excitement, though, he mostly looked forward to seeing Esme, Queen of Lightning! She was a young girl about his age who absolutely enchanted him. Teo was still grieving from the tragic loss of sister the year before, but Esme seemed full of life the first time they met. The eldest fortune teller among the Gypsies foretold that Esme and Teo would be lifelong friends. It seems an impossible fortune, since their people were so different.
Grandpa Teo tells his story to Mateo, about how each year, Esme and the other Romanies returned to the Hill of Dust, and their friendship grew. There were victories and tragedies along the way, as Teo acquired a small entourage of injured animals. In the present, Mateo is spellbound by his grandfather’s story, barely taking breaks to use the bathroom or eat. He is anxious to hear how the story will end, since he’d never heard of Esme before, and can’t begin to guess what Grandpa Teo could want his help with.
This is an absolutely entrancing story. Most of it is Grandpa Teo’s story of his childhood in the 1950’s and his life back then and friendship with Esme. At times, there is a short break in the story and a return to the present, as Mateo listens to his grandfather with rapt attention. The narrators of the audio book, Christian Barillas and Thom Rivera, do a fabulous job, with their accents and voices pulling the listener right into the story.
Besides the engrossing story of the two childhood friends and the challenges they faced, this book is also fascinating for its setting and characters. It introduces two groups of people who are poorly understood and rarely written about: the native Mixteco Indians in Mexico and the traveling Romani. I was so intrigued that I went online to look up more information. Did you know that the Romani, commonly referred to as Gypsies, are originally from India? I was surprised by that. In the book, these two sets of people – who are each treated with disdain and disrespected as outsiders by other residents of Mexico – find friendship and fellowship in each other.
This story really captivated me, right from the first words. It pulled me into a world unfamiliar to me and made me feel at home and welcome. Teo and Esme face many challenges in each reaching their goals – he to get more education and she to become a famous singer – and there is plenty of suspense as well as joy and humor in this novel. I also liked the way that the older story was intertwined with the modern one, as Mateo finds a way to help his grandfather in the present day. The Lightning Queen is an enchanting story of friendship and family set among interesting, exotic people and places.