The Sunset of the Pinochet Regime in a Striking YA Novel

Surviving Santiago, by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, (Running Press Kids, Perseus), 320 pages, release date 2 June, 2015

When I began reading Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s Surviving Santiago, I hadn’t realized it drew on her earlier work Gringolandia (which I haven’t yet read, but which I purchased immediately after finishing Surviving Santiago). The central character, Tina Aguilar, is a rather naive sixteen-year-old, spending the summer in Santiago, Chile, with her activist father, who she hasn’t seen since her parents separated.

The novel is set after the plebiscite that ended Pinochet’s rule in Chile, but before he has left office. Tina’s father, who was imprisoned and tortured during the Pinochet regime, and who is still closely watched by Pinochet’s government, is the host of a popular, liberal radio program. He has insisted upon Tina spending the summer with him, but seems to be going to great lengths to avoid spending any time with her. Instead, Tina is left to be looked over by her paternal aunt Ileana (who, interestingly, is a very closeted lesbian) and spends increasing amounts of time with Frankie, a young man she’s met in her wanderings around the city.

As I said, Tina is naive—unaware of the dangers of careless speech or action in the waning days of the dictatorship. What follows can perhaps be anticipated, but is moving nonetheless. Tina inadvertently puts her father’s and her own life in danger and, in the process of saving them both, builds a new relationship with him.

Surviving Santiago is a solid young adult novel, balancing family, romance, and crisis in unexpected ways. To most young adult readers, Chile’s Pinochet regime isn’t even a bit of fog in the distant past—it’s completely unknown. For that reason, I particularly appreciate the deftness with which Miller-Lachmann provides the historical context that many U.S. readers will need. The recent history of Chile unfolds over the course of the novel, laid out clearly, but not in a way that interrupts the narrative. Surviving Santiago’s blend of entertainment and history is an enjoyable and welcome addition to recent young adult literature.

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