Perhaps because I grew up and live in Texas, a state that borders Mexico, I have always worked hard to be bilingual and have remained very aware of the dualities that exist between Texas and Mexico, rich and poor, English and Spanish. As a woman who has often worked in male-dominated professions such as construction, forest firefighting, and screenwriting, I have also always been acutely aware of the duality between male and female. And as a fan of coming-of-age novels and films, I have often pondered that treacherous and magical age when adolescence borders adulthood.
And so when I began to write the coming-of-age novel The Earthquake Machine, I created a character that straddles all of these binaries.
14 year-old Rhonda learns Spanish by spending the magic hour of dusk with her family’s yardman Jésus. It’s a way for her to avoid her painful family situation and have some steady and sane adult company. After Jésus is deported and Rhonda’s mother commits suicide, Rhonda’s friends take her on a river rafting trip in Big Bend National Park in an effort to look after her and perhaps distract her from her grief. When Rhonda has a sexual near miss with an adult river raft guide, she realizes she must leave her life behind. But instead of committing suicide like her mother, she runs away, swimming across the Rio Grande River to Mexico.
Rhonda wants to travel deep into interior Mexico to find Jésus, but she realizes she won’t be safe traveling through a foreign country if people know she is an American girl. So she transforms her appearance so that she can “pass” as a Mexican boy. The fact that she is dark-skinned, speaks perfect Spanish, and has not yet developed the curves of a woman allows for this deception.
The tale of a girl who pretends to be a boy in order to make her way in a harsh world is an old one; I use this archetypal story set up to explore cultural ideas about certain dualities. An example: Everyone living in border states is aware of the influx of Mexican immigrants that come to the U.S. hoping for the chance at a better life, or merely to make much needed money to send home to their families. The Earthquake Machine takes that idea and turns it on its head. In the novel, an American girl travels south across the border on the hunt—not for money or work—but for adventure and, ultimately, an emotionally stable family life.
I hope The Earthquake will give readers lots of reasons to think in new and different ways about the dualities with which we live, and often take for granted. And I hope it inspires readers to take risks and live their own lives a bit more fully.
The book every girl should read,
and every girl’s parents hope she’ll never read.
The Earthquake Machine tells the story of 14 year-old Rhonda. On the outside, everything looks perfect in Rhonda’s world, but at home Rhonda has to deal with a manipulative father who keeps her mentally ill mother hooked on pharmaceuticals. The only reliable person in Rhonda’s life is her family’s Mexican yardman, Jesús. But when the INS deports Jesús back to his home state of Oaxaca, Rhonda is left alone with her increasingly painful family situation.
Determined to find her friend Jésus, Rhonda seizes an opportunity to run away during a camping trip with friends to Big Bend National Park. She swims to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and makes her way to the border town of Milagros, Mexico. There a peyote- addled bartender convinces her she won’t be safe traveling alone into the country’s interior. So with the bartender’s help, Rhonda cuts her hair and assumes the identity of a Mexican boy named Angel. She then sets off on a burro across the desert to look for Jesús. Thus begins a wild adventure that fulfills the longing of readers eager for a brave and brazen female protagonist.
Author Bio: Mary Pauline Lowry has worked as a forest firefighter, screenwriter, open water lifeguard, construction worker, and advocate in the movement to end violence against women. Due to no fault of her sweet parents, at 15 she ran away from home and made it all the way to Matamoros, Mexico. She believes women and girls should make art, have adventures, and read books that show them the way.
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