Review: Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher

“These weren’t gory, made-up tales. These were our friends and neighbors being rounded up and carted away. It had to be just a matter of time before we were dragged away too.”

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Notice: I received an eARC of this book from the Penguin Teen Partner program/Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

It’s 2032, and in this near-future America, all citizens are chipped and everyone is tracked—from buses to grocery stores. It’s almost impossible to survive as an undocumented immigrant, but that’s exactly what sixteen-year-old Vali is doing. She and her family have carved out a stable, happy life in small-town Vermont, but when Vali’s mother’s counterfeit chip starts malfunctioning and the Deportation Forces raid their town, they are forced to flee.

Now on the run, Vali and her family are desperately trying to make it to her tía Luna’s in California, a sanctuary state that is currently being walled off from the rest of the country. But when Vali’s mother is detained before their journey even really begins, Vali must carry on with her younger brother across the country to make it to safety before it’s too late.

Gripping and urgent, co-authors Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher have crafted a narrative that is as haunting as it is hopeful in envisioning a future where everyone can find sanctuary.

I write this review fully aware that immigration is a painful and sensitive topic, especially in the United States under the current presidential administration. I write this review knowing that though this book may reflect the immigration stories of some, not every immigrant is represented in this book. I write this review knowing that I benefit from my citizenship and I will never truly understand the burdens having/maintaining an immigration status. And above all, I write this review knowing that immigrants are so, so much more than their immigration status. Immigrants are people who are undervalued and persecuted for no justifiable reason. I stand with immigrants and I will always raise my voice in any way I can.

If I cause any harm with my words in this review, know that it is not intentional and PLEASE correct me. There will be no offense taken, only gratitude for holding me accountable to do better. Thank you.

I read this book from cover to cover in one day. In my whole bookish career, I think I can count on one hand how many times I’ve done that. I say this to say that Sanctuary was incredible in the most heartbreaking way possible.

The synopsis paints an excellent picture of the story at hand: Vali and her family are immigrants who fled Columbia after an unannounced war begins. They find refuge in San Diego, California, and while it is not perfect, it is temporarily more safe than their home country. But as a tyrannical president takes over and begins a campaign to “clean up” the United States, undocumented immigrants all over the country are suddenly under attack.

It is so hard to explain how reading this book and living in this time feels. Though this book is technically a YA “dystopia” novel set in the year 2032, if you took away some of the advanced technology, you could read this book thinking it was now. September 2020. Under the current “president” Donald Trump. And it is so incredibly painful to say that.

The horrors of human evil that this book covers feels like things that should belong only in a dystopia novel. Instead, they are all too real. They are happening now. And you should see disturbing parallels between this book and this life if you are paying attention. From deportation officers to sudden disappearances. Concentration camps and human trafficking. All of this unfolds through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl who just wants to keep the remainder of her family together and alive. It is a truly gripping story that should make Americans pay very close attention to how our country persecutes innocent families merely because of where they are from. How our country produces smear campaigns to make immigrants look like perpetrators of perpetual violence. How xenophobia is disguised as patriotism and “protecting the American dream.” The American dream is broken. This country was founded on violence and power imbalances. This book makes it painfully clear that America is very much not a sanctuary when the system is constantly trying to root immigrants out and send them “back to where they came from.”

One thing I really appreciated about this book is that Vali and her family are Colombian and not Mexican. I think that it is very easy (ESPECIALLY in the current times) to think of immigration as solely a U.S. – Mexico issue. Here is a reminder that immigration can happen between any two countries. Not every immigrant is from Mexico. Not every immigrant immigrates to the United States. Not every immigrant immigrates to flee violence or persecution. There is so much stigma around what immigration is and what immigrants look like. A reprieve from the U.S. – Mexico immigration story was very appreciated.

I also enjoyed that Spanish is present frequently and colloquially throughout the book and is not always translated immediately after. I’ve read threads on Twitter about POC authors embracing culture (including language) in their work without fear that readers won’t buy it because they “don’t get it,” or dismantling the impulse to explain their culture every single time. I found myself recognizing some Spanish sometimes, and Googling other phrases other times. Here is also a reminder to readers that reading outside of your culture is a healthy reading exercise. And that we as readers should not expect authors to carry the burden of explaining every culturally significant element of a story to us—that’s what Google is for.

In all, I absolutely loved this book and I think everyone should give it a go. It is out now and you can find where to buy it in the links above (not sponsored at all!)

3 thoughts on “Review: Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher

  1. This review was amazing. I like that it’s a dystopian type book but it’s not like a lot of other dystopian novels such as The Hunger Games or Divergent. It also makes me sad because immigration right now in the USA is sooo, so bad. I hope it becomes better by 2032 and not end up like the book. This book sounds amazing and powerful. I am definitely going to read this when I’m in a mood to read a difficult but powerful book!


    Liked by 1 person

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