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Beautiful Books – The House on Mango Street

From the back cover: Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous, The House on Mango Street tells the story of Esperanza Cordero, whose neighborhood is one of harsh realities and harsh beauty. Esperanza doesn’t want to belong—not to her rundown neighborhood, and not to the low expectations the world has for her. Esperanza’s story is that of a young girl coming into her power, and inventing for herself what she will become.

I first read The House on Mango Street in college—it was one of the novels I carted with me every time I moved (which in my 20s was frequently—though it was usually a choice rather than a necessity). I also taught it to my high school freshman during my brief time as a teacher in California. I absolutely love this novel! I love the poetry and the honesty of Esperanza’s voice, and I don’t want to imagine a world where this novel doesn’t exist. I reread the copy I’ve carried around since college, which is all highlighted up and says TEACHER’S COPY on the edges of the pages when you hold the book closed tight. The glue is failing. But I could be persuaded to let my daughters borrow it.

Because of the vignetted structure of The House on Mango Street, I’m going to write this post differently: I’ll talk about some of the vignettes that stuck with me on this reread.

“My Name” Esperanza was named for her great-grandma, who was a “wild horse of a woman” (p. 11) and I think, even though she was forced into a role she didn’t choose, her great-grandma WAS a strong woman—because it takes immense strength to survive, conquered. I wonder if she gave up hope, or if she tucked it away, deep into her DNA, to pass it along to someone (Esperanza) who had a better chance than she did.

My relationship with my own name is ambivalent. Sometimes, I think it ugly and masculine. Other times I hate that the first Wendy was forced to become a mother-figure to her siblings and Peter and the Lost Boys—and how it felt when I went through a similar situation. Then I remember what a strong young woman Wendy is, and how she chooses the hard things and does everything she can to protect those she loves, and I realize: my name is perfect.

“Gil’s Furniture Bought & Sold” “I bought the Statue of Liberty for a dime.” (p. 20) I think this really happens. I suspect Esperanza took care of hers, but in the grownup world, the people who buy our liberty don’t care for it—it’s just something they want to have and control. They treat it like they found it in a junk shop, like it’s worth less than a dime.

“Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the Dark” This vignette reminds me of when I was 13, and my dad’s mother died. My mom was already in Pennsylvania, where she’d been caring for my grandmother. My dad woke me up early so I could help him pack. We made pb&j sandwiches and I helped get my sister & brother ready. I remember pouring him coffee as he drove us up the dark highway; it was the only thing I could do. I didn’t think it was enough.

“Four Trees” I love the idea of trees growing angrily, as if to spite the world of concrete around them. I’m glad they’re there for Esperanza when she needs reassurance that she can survive, too—and even flourish.

“Sally” “There is no one to lend you her hairbrush.” (p. 82) This sentence made me cry. Who doesn’t want—need—one person they know they can count on to understand and support them? Sally reminds me of a girl named Rosemary. She was in the eighth grade and we rode the same bus to middle school. Like Sally, her dad told her what she could and could not do or wear. Rosemary used to put her makeup on during the ride to school every day, and take it off on the way home. Watching her do that everyday (and sometimes holding her mirror for her) helped me realize I, too, could be two people if I had to be.

Final Thoughts It’s difficult to reject what everyone else wants for you; it feels selfish, arrogant, and daunting. But if we don’t go after what we want, no one will hand it to us. And honestly, if someone did hand it to us, we wouldn’t want it, anymore—because it’s not only about the goal.

It’s about knowing you got there yourself. It’s about truth, honesty, and brazenness. It’s about speaking up—both for ourselves and those who can’t speak for themselves—and telling the stories of those who don’t even know they have a story to tell.

For May 17: Rishi and the Karmic Cat by Nandini Bajpai

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