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.
Lowry has a fascinating bio, which you can find here. She’s worked as a forest firefighter, construction worker, open water lifeguard, and advocate to end violence against women. She’s currently a novelist, screenwriter, and regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
Although this book is about a teenager, I’m not sure I’d call it YA. It’s very adult, although definitely told through the voice of a teenager. Rhonda’s character felt really authentic to me – she’s completely confused, she looks for meaning in everything yet acts totally on impulse. As a teenager I didn’t do any of the brave, wild things that Rhonda does, but I remember that age where you invest everything with huge emotional meaning, even though the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way. Rhonda sort of lives in color where the adults live in black and white.
In fact, color is a frequent theme in this book:
When Rhonda complained to her mother about the lack of color, insisting that it stifled her, Louise May sighed wistfully, as if she’d also rather have red walls, purple couches, yellow table and chairs, but still she insisted the house was tasteful.
I appreciated not only Rhonda’s strength and bravery, but also Lowry’s willingness to challenge this character to her physical and emotional limits. I also appreciated (again, going back to this is what it’s like to be a teenager) Rhonda’s inability to really confront her problems. For example, she thinks that turning herself into a boy or finding her friend Jesus is going to fix her life, rather than confronting the real trauma of her life back home. She creates a villain in Mansk, a rafting instructor who sets off Rhonda’s conflicting emotions around sexuality. While Mansk’s actions are certainly inappropriate, he’s also not the villain she turns him into – and he’s not the real problem in her life, just the only one she’s willing to confront. This part of the story made me pretty uncomfortable but it also felt realistic. Again, that’s something teenagers do, at least something I know I did. We turn a problem around in our head, over and over again, until it blows up into something completely different from where it started.
What I enjoyed most was the setting of this book. Rhonda’s travels through Mexico are so vivid, so colorful. Lowry calls all of your senses into play as you read this book. She writes about the colors on walls and on the Mexican carvings called alibrijes, the taste of pan dulce, the sounds of different dialects. Lowry really pays attention to the details. The characters Rhonda meets feel larger than life but not like caricatures. As Rhonda travels from town to town, you really feel you’re seeing and experiencing what she does.
She sat and wished for a book and took slow sips of water only when her thirst felt unbearable. She welcomed the sun even though it baked her face and arms and the back of her neck. She knew she’d left Rhonda behind. She was Angel now. But she also realized that the darker her skin, the more complete her transformation.
Rhonda’s inner turmoil felt brilliant at times and overwhelming at other times. She’s constantly coming to new realizations about herself but then turns around and makes the same mistakes. She questions her identity, her sexuality, her faith so many times in this book that while authentic, it gets a little repetitive.
As a warning, this book is pretty sexual and at times hit my discomfort level just given that this character is fourteen years old. Still, Rhonda’s confusion and obsession with sexuality, while it overwhelms the narrative at times, is probably still in keeping with what a teenage girl might be feeling. She may be more sexually aggressive than some of us were at fifteen, but let’s be honest: that feeling of not knowing when sex is a substitute for love, when it’s about self-esteem, and when it’s just physical is something every teenager goes through. Rhonda has suffered more than most teens and lacks any sort of parental guidance, so it’s understandable that sexuality becomes this huge, confusing thing in her life.
I worried that this book would become a little too religious for me, but it wasn’t. Rhonda wrestles with her faith like anyone experiencing life-changing circumstances might. It means one thing to her one day and something different the next day. And her understanding of her faith changes as she travels throughout Mexico and learns from different people, so the book isn’t about just having one understanding of what Catholicism means.
One last thing I loved about this book was that Rhonda’s experiences are capital-A adventure. She may not have any idea what she’s doing but along the way she really experiences life and does some amazing things. There are maybe some times the book seems a little too adventurous to be realistic (for example, when Rhonda meets up with a band of female banditas) but I appreciated that Lowry never tones down the action because she’s writing about a girl. Also, much of this book is based on Lowry’s own experiences; she actually did run away to Mexico at the age of fifteen.
So thumbs-up to Lowry for her unique and very moving story, told in a hard-to-pull-off adolescent voice.
If you’re interested, you can view an alternative cover for this book at the author’s website. I prefer the first cover though I can see why publishers might prefer the second. What do you think?
Note: I received a free copy of this book from the author but did not receive any additional compensation for this review. The author had no input into the content of this review.