By Jacob Wheeler
University of Nebraska Press
By Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli
Jacob Wheeler may be too honest. He may be too perplexed by a heartbreaking reality. He may be so torn by the state of Guatemalan adoption that he cant morally bring himself to make a definitive statement. All of that and more is evident in his book, Between Light and Shadow: A Guatemalan Girls Journey through Adoption.
From wanting to applaud American couples saving children from poverty and early death to decrying the loss of a countrys babies, it is evident that Wheeler is torn.
On one hand there is the story of 14-year-old Ellie, a teenager from Traverse City, adopted at the age of seven from Guatemala. She was seemingly sought out by corrupt facilitators when an older child, rather than a baby, was sought after. Whether her birth mother gave her up knowingly with the expectation of being paid, or was tricked and tried to get her backtruth lies somewhere in a murky middle.
The storys center swirls around Ellie at 14, after seven years still feeling the hole in her heart where her other family lives. And there is her adoptive mother, Judy, who wants to help heal this child shes come to love as her own through reuniting Ellie with her Guatemalan familyat least for a visit.
Woven through the story of this reunion with brothers who once chased the car that took Ellie away from them and a mother torn between her feelings and a life lived in hell, is the story of the kinds of adoption that in the United States would be called criminal.
Whether the poor women of Central America are duped into giving up their children, offered money that might save their other children from starvation, or contracted with to produce babies for wealthy people who cant have a child of their own, the adoption scene in Guatemala is ugly. On the one hand, as Wheeler points out, children are being saved from lives of abuse and starvation, being brought to America to lives of iPods and plenty. On the other handdoes anyone have the right to the children, the future of another country?
Wheeler writes of adoption facilitated by corrupt lawyers who will bend what little government oversight is in place, leaving a child without a birth certificate, with forged papers, without knowledge of where it was they came from, who their people were, and nothing of their own culture. It is the story of inhumanity and women being treated as baby factories.
Some of the adoptive parents, as Wheeler points out, are well intentioned. Some of them, seen through Wheelers eyes, are abhorrent: babies on demand, of the right gender, the right sort. In one case a hopeful parent looks at the photo of a prospective child and asks only, Whats that?
Wheeler, a journalist and publisher of the Glen Arbor Sun, offered to help Judy find Ellies mother and brothers. He set off for Guatemala with the idea of writing a book about the adoption business in that country, but ran into one conundrum after another as the lives of the children; the state of the country -- recently torn by civil war and now at odds with much of the modern world; the mind-numbing poverty, corruption; cruelty; misogyny, all form questions impossible to deal with easily.
Without papers that definitively said whether Ellie came from El Salvador or Guatemala, Wheeler set off to find her family with only a seven-year-olds memories to guide him. From there on it becomes a detective story of unearthing a relative here, a neighbor there, until the mother and brothers are found.
This is nothing like a feel-good fairy tale. Nothing will be as we expect, just as nothing that happens is expected by Judy or Jacob. They face unwanted challenges, and then new realizations of who they, as Americans, really are. What the book brings out is the worst, and then the best, in everyoneall sides: Guatemalan and American.
Always, at the heart of the story, is a seven-year-old snatched from the only home and people she knew to be taken to a foreign land, to live with foreign people, in a culture not her own. If a culprit is neededit is the country itself. If there was employment for the poor, if there was government support for families, if the Catholic Church didnt frighten women away from birth control, if women werent degraded by downtrodden men if life werent other than it is the babies of Guatemala, the future, might survive, even thrive, where they are born.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
Jacob Wheeler has written a book that should be an eye-opener for any American couple seeking to adopt in that country. There is responsibility for their actions that might go far beyond providing a home for a needy child. There are actions that have far-reaching consequences for them and for their adopted child.
On the other hand, where is the morality in being able to save one child from early death and a life of misery and not doing it? I think this unanswerable question is what Wheeler so deftly handles. It is refreshing to read a book where the writer doesnt supply dishonest answers or takes an untenable stand. Maybe what hes accomplished here is to open eyes, to make us look beyond our borders not for childrenused as a commodity, but for ways to help other countries lift themselves up; help save an entire people, many children, rather than one child at a time.
New In Print:
Surviving My Happy Childhood by Jim Carpenter of Leland is a book of stories about growing up in Michigan. From memories of snowball fights to a bit of voyeurism in a cloak room the stories travel through fiction and fact to create entertaining vignettes of Midwest life. In Arthur Woodbridge the protagonist deals with the loss of a 19-year-old friend. In Sammy he deals with his brothers imaginary friend. From elementary school into adulthood, Carpenters stories are funny and touching.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli is teaching a creative writing course at NMC beginning April 20ew. Call Carol Evans at NMC extended education for details and to register: 995-1705.
Her fourth novel in the Emily Kincaid series from Midnight Ink, Dead Dogs and Englishmen, just received a starred review in Kirkus Reviews and will be in bookstores this July.