Pricking Historical Memory

Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory, and Justice in Guatemala, by Sebastian Rotella and Ana Arana (ProPublica) and Caminar, by Skila Brown (Candlewick Press)

Both Finding Oscar and Caminar focus on the decades-long genocide in Guatemala, purportedly anti-Communist and strongly supported by the U.S. government. Both are set in the early 1980s. Both are novella-length. Each centers around a boy who survives the massacre of his village.

Finding Oscar is non-fiction, an extension of what originated as a journalistic investigation of a massacre in the Guatemalan village of Dos Erres. Caminar is a prose poem relating the story of a boy who survives a similar massacre in his own village; while based on history in a broad sense, it is a work of fiction. Finding Oscar is directed toward an adult audience, offering the sort of details and documentation one expects from good journalism. Caminar is directed toward children and young adults, relating its account in short bursts of narrative presented in a first-person voice.

I’m not writing this review to compare the two pieces or to argue that one is better than the other. They were written to accomplish different tasks, and each does its task well. Instead, I’m writing because both works deserve attention for pricking historical memory, for making vivid events that might seem distant to some readers.

I teach at a university and attended college and graduate school in the 1980s. The U.S. role in Central America was one of the burning political issues of that time. The money and lives the U.S. invested in upholding military strongmen and murdering peasants in the name of preventing communism was both criticized and mourned in the circles I ran in. Most of us were cynical enough that we didn’t expect much different from our government during this cold-war era. Those of us not given over completely to cynicism were also broken-hearted at the betrayal of democratic principles we’d been raised to honor and view as a global model.

Most of my students (who were born in the mid-90s) know nothing about this period unless they are the children of refugees or refugees themselves. This is what makes both Finding Oscar and Caminar so very necessary. Their two very different voices struggle against the failure of historical memory, demand that we remember the past so as not to repeat it.

We meet the Oscar of Finding Oscar as an adult, living in the U.S., who is unaware of his connection to Dos Erres. We meet Carlos, the protagonist of Caminar, shortly before his village is massacred, and we share his journey up the mountain to the village where his grandmother still lives. Both works highlight the role of forensic anthropologists in documenting the genocide. Read Finding Oscar for the historical context it provides and for the way it documents the parallel strands of violence and tenderness that run in all of us. Read Caminar to become acquainted with its protagonist. Make friends with him, travel with him, wrestle as he does with trying to find a way to name the horrors he’s survived.

You can use the above link to access Finding Oscar free of charge on ProPublica’s web site (a Kindle version is also available from Amazon for a small price). Look for Caminar to arrive in bookstores Beginning March 25.