Book Review: Into The Light by Mark Oshiro
By Doreen SheridanApril 26, 2023
Despite having very little else, Manny has always had his older sister Elena. Placed into the California foster system before he was even old enough to remember a life outside of it, he and Elena have been bounced around from placement to placement, rarely staying in one place long enough to make friends or lasting ties. But at least they always stayed together, in no small part through Elena’s fierce determination to keep them from being separated. Because of this, the siblings are closer than most their age, as they enter their mid-teens and realize that they’re probably never going to be adopted.
Manny responds to all this by shutting himself off to strangers, even as Elena becomes more and more of a people pleaser. So it’s a shock to Manny when Elena suddenly grows secretive, going away for long stretches of time and telling her concerned brother not to worry about it. When she finally admits that she’s put together a plan to gain them a forever family, he’s not sure whether to be grateful or suspicious.
Fast forward a few years and Manny is alone, traveling through the American Southwest and relying on the kindness of strangers to see him through. When he meets Ricardo and Monica Varela and their teenage son Carlos, he’s grateful for their help. It isn’t long though before he starts thinking about his next step, of grabbing his duffel bag and bolting at the first sign of abandonment:
Wouldn’t be the first time I disappeared. Won’t be the last.
I am soon to overstay my welcome anyway. That always happens. At some point, this family will tire of me. They’ll pull away. Talk to me less. Make comments they don’t think I can hear about how I am a burden. I am stress-inducing. I’m so complicated.
All things I’ve heard before.
So maybe I should just go now. Go…
When he learns of a body being found outside of the gated compound where he’d last seen Elena, Manny suddenly has a direction to go to. He’s ready to run, but the Varelas aren’t about to give up on him. And in truth, he doesn’t want to do this alone. For what if the body is Elena’s? What will he do then?
Interspersed with Manny’s story are chapters told from the viewpoint of Eli, a young man who has only ever wanted to obey his family and be loved by them. But he can’t remember anything of his past, no matter how hard he tries. He’s been told he’s a miracle for as long as he can remember, but will his faith be enough to lead others to the Reconciliation his family demands?
This is a harrowing story of the American foster and adoption systems and their intersection with Christian nationalism, with a supernatural twist. I’m not gonna lie, while the twist was a powerful metaphor for mental trauma, it didn’t really work for me, though I really enjoyed the book otherwise. Mark Oshiro writes frankly of teenage homelessness and complex PTSD, and speaks with even-handedness about family and faith. Even when Manny is angered by a missionary offering to pray for him—when it’s pretty obvious that Manny could use a meal, or even some money first—his response isn’t to reject faith outright:
I’m hungry. Thirsty. Pissed off. Embarrassed. My nerves frayed. Probably shouldn’t have yelled at [the missionary], but I don’t like people who offer prayers and nothing else. I don’t even really have anything against them. It’s just that… God can’t be listening to us all. And he’s certainly not going to listen to me. It makes people uncomfortable when I say something like that, because I think prayer is a balm for them. A form of meditation. It relaxes them. I don’t want to take that away from anyone, but offering prayer? Does nothing for me. Ever.
Keep it to yourself.
This is a very trenchant thought in a time where certain segments of society think that offering “thoughts and prayers” is a useful substitute for concrete action. Into The Light is a book that’s heavily in conversation with some of the most important social issues of our era, offering a very timely argument for the rights of children to be heard and believed and advocated for. It can be a tough book to read, but it’s a necessary reminder that parents, adoptive or otherwise, don’t own their kids, and that while family ties may strain, a parent’s duty of care should never be conditional.
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