Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5
It is the first day of Jose’s collegiate life and he’s terrified. The older of nine children, Jose Lopez is the son of migrant workers, born in California and familiar only with the states his family worked through and the transitory life that comes with being part of a large migrant farm workers. Jose has dreamed of escaping the drudgery and poverty of his parents and being able to provide a path to a better life for his brothers and sisters. Brown University is his ticket to a education and better life but brown skinned Jose feels as out of place among the white upper echelon as a burrito at a black tie dinner. Then his roommate arrives, and the comparison between them enlarges the cultural divide already apparent.
Phillip comes from a wealthy New York family and is entering Brown just as his father and his father’s father before him. A child of privilege, Phillip can’t begin to understand the true depth of how Jose’s upbringing and background have affected him. All Phillip sees is an attractive boy, shy, and welcoming. True, their first meeting is awkward as Phillip’s mother mistakes Jose for a porter for Phillip’s bags but Jose is used to people’s perceptions of him as the help instead of a possible equal.
Soon the boys discover common ground between them, and Phillip helps Jose with all things new to him , including tv, electronics and cultural passages of youth. Slowly a friendship builds and then turns into love despite the many differences between them. But obstacles made of their divergent backgrounds rise up when Jose’s siblings are left to his care when his parents are stuck in Mexico with visa issues. Can Jose and Phillip overcome the barriers raised by a clash of cultures or will the cultural divide keep them forever apart?
Many things got me excited about this book. One, the title. When Dachshunds Ruled the Serengeti. So serendipitous and playful, then you add in that adorable cover by Paul Richmond, and I would have said that it was a slam dunk. I fully expected a light hearted tale of two cultures colliding in college and living HEA. And I sort of got that, minus the light hearted aspect as that is completely lacking. And that’s a shame because given the title and cover art there is such a disconnect between the reader’s expectations and the actual story that I am not sure the story itself recovers the good will the reader starts out with.
Paul Richmond’s cover comes from one of the more delightful sections of this story. Lacking the chance to attend school, the migrant farmers children are left to the adults around them for education. Another worker had appointed herself teacher and was trying to get across a lesson on geography and Africa. When the children were unable to grasp what a wildebeest was, Jose invented a story using a local farm dog migrating on the Serengeti. The charm and whimsy of the section of the book only serves to highlight what went wrong with the rest of the story. As I read about Jose and the children, I was completely drawn into the story. I felt I was sitting beside the youngest, so enthralled in the vision of thousands of dachshunds roaming the Serengeti, charmed by the characters, the setting, and so aware of the joy that even poverty and deprivation can’t keep down. It’s amazing and so beautifully written.
In fact, Jose is the best and most realistic thing about this story. Michael Murphy really gets into the head of Jose and the disparity between his background and the privileged young men and women he finds himself among. Jose is really the most likable of the two main characters. Murphy does a good job in giving both young men realistic and well rounded personalities. We truly understand just how frightening a new world Brown University represents and how ill prepared Jose is to enter it. He lacks not only the material belongings necessary but the cultural markers that all the other students take for granted. The author seems to understand how lonely it must be not to see another person of the same color and history reflected back at him. Over and over, we see through Jose’s eyes how society looks at the fastest growing population in the US, hispanics of Mexican, South American, and Puerto Rican backgrounds. Here is Jose looking at the precious few belongings on his bed on his first day in the dorm:
His entire life José had always been on the move with his parents and his many, many brothers and sisters. His family moved constantly, not to evade something, but to find something. His family moved with the crop cycles. They were migrant workers who might be in South Carolina one day picking peaches only to leave to move to Florida to plant strawberries. From there they might go farther south in Dade County to plant tomatoes. Then they might move back north by a few hours to weed some other field of some other crop before heading to Texas to pick pecans or Arizona to pick oranges.
In the course of a single year, the family van could clock an untold number of miles in the constant move from one location to another. The number was untold simply because the odometer in the old van they used had broken many years ago, so no one had any idea how many miles they had actually covered. Living on the move was their life, so none of them gave it much thought. It was all José and his siblings had ever known.
And then he meets Phillip and his family for the first time, and cultural reality sets in:
When he glanced toward the doorway in response to the knock, José saw a blond guy about his age, taller than him, who looked tentatively into the room.
“Is this 201?” he asked hesitantly.
“Sure is,” José answered with a smile.
The guy smiled back. “Home sweet home,” he said as he gave the place an appraising look. José, as a student of people, of humanity, watched the play of emotions on the guy’s face. It didn’t take an expert to know that the guy did not like what he was seeing. His brow was furrowed, and his face took on the appearance of displeasure.
“Kind of small,” the guy said. “And old. My dad warned me that the dorms here were like tenements, but I thought he was joking. I guess he wasn’t.”
“I set my bag over here,” José said, gesturing to his left, “but if you want that side, that’s fine with me. I’m not particular.”
“No. That’s no problem. I’m just trying to figure where I’m supposed to put everything.” Before they could continue their conversation, José saw an older version of his roommate come into view outside the door. “You found it!” he said. “I guess,” the guy responded to the man José assumed was his father. For a man of his age, the guy was in pretty good shape. He didn’t have that middle-aged spread in his center that happened to so many men. He had a full head of hair. He was attractive. And he was dressed in clothes that cost more than José’s dad had paid for the van they lived out of most of the year. Beside the man stopped a smiling woman, also well dressed in what were obviously expensive clothes, even if they were casual in appearance. “Our baby’s new home,” she said with a smile.
“Mom,” the guy said, obviously embarrassed at being called her “baby.”
“Oh, good,” the woman said, “you’ve found the porter to help us move things.” The woman seemed to assume that someone who appeared Mexican and was dressed poorly was obviously not a student but was only there to lift and carry for others. The guy standing beside José looked sharply at his mother and then turned back to José. “I’m Phillip,” he said, introducing himself and sticking out his hand in the universal greeting.
“José,” he said with a smile, “your new roomie.”
And that is just the beginning of the embarrassments and offending statements that lie in wait for Jose on the college campus. I think Michael Murphy is a great job with Jose and his experiences on the campus so alien to his upbringing and background. Then there is Phillip and family.
Sigh. I think that Phillip is where most of the problems with this story originate. I found him to be a self centered, culturally isolated young man. And in some instances, I am sure that there are plenty of real Phillips out there. He is quick to accept Jose, quick to come to his aid, and just as quick to judge and remove himself from Jose when cultural issues rise up between them. Yes, they are both extremely young but somehow, the manner in which Murphy has created Phillip leaves him lacking in ways that would connect the reader to his character. We understand Jose and his actions absolutely. We also understand Phillip’s given his wealthy, insulated background but the author never really makes the reader sympathize with Phillip in the same way we do Jose.
When the rest of Jose’s siblings arrive on scene, then the best and the worst of this story reveal themselves. Jose and his interactions with his brothers and sisters are not only believable, but they capture all of the charm and love this story has to give. It makes Phillip’s mother an endearing character and does the same thing for his father. We experience the close bond that only siblings who have spent their entire lives in one room, one car, depending only upon each other can have. This is where the storytelling comes in, as well as the power of familial love. It is also where the reader will start to pull away from Phillip. The rest of the book unfortunately removes Jose almost completely from the story to its detriment. And once they reconnect, it is almost too late to recapture the feelings brought about by the first section of the story.
The author adds a character called Steven in the second half of the book who furthers the separation between reader and Phillip. I just don’t understand the necessity of his inclusion. If you take the strange turn of events in the second half, the addition of an unnecessary character, and an abrupt ending, you can see why the reader will walk away from this book, rueing the lost promise of When Dachsunds Ruled the Serengeti while remembering with fondness Jose and his siblings, thinking of thousands of dachshunds migrating through Africa. Really it is Jose and family that raise this story up towards a 4 star rating and Phillip that pulls it down. But oh that cover, and that title…….
Cover art by Paul Richmond. Entrancing and whimsical. I loved it. One of my favorite’s of his to be sure.
ebook, 226 pages
Published May 24th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 1623805821 (ISBN13: 9781623805821)