I really like the unifying cover design that Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic) has created for Francisco X. Stork's last two books: Marcelo in the Real World and his latest, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. The silhouetted characters against those huge skies makes you want to pick them up and at least read the jacket copy. But it was, really, Marcelo that made me want to read Stork's most recent book.
The Death Warriors are D.Q. (Daniel Quentin) and Pancho Sanchez (think Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) -- two residents of a group home for teen boys, St. Anthony's, located in Las Cruces, New Mexico. D.Q. has lived there for some time, and he is now trying to be formally emancipated from his mother -- who placed him here when he was nine or ten, as she believed that she could no longer care for him. D.Q. has brain cancer, and he and his mother disagree about the treatment he should be pursuing. Pancho has just arrived at St. Anthony's, as he has no adult able to care for him. His father died a few months ago, and his older sister Rosa -- mentally disabled -- was found dead in a motel room. While the coroner could find no cause of death, Pancho believes she was murdered. He is determined to find her killer and take revenge.
Upon Pancho's arrival, D.Q. petitions that he be given the job of tending to D.Q.'s physical needs. D.Q.'s going to need a lot of help over the next few weeks as he is returning to the hospital and then to an outpatient residence for chemo. D.Q. recognizes a kindred spirit in Pancho, and introduces him to the work of his life, the Death Warrior Manifesto. Death Warriors vow “to love life at all times and in all circumstances.” Pancho is skeptical, but since he needs the money, he becomes D.Q.'s companion.
I really enjoyed this novel. While on some level, it is the kid-with-cancer-who-must-teach-others-all-about-living teen novel, it manages to transcend that tired genre. Like its literary inspiration, it's really a book about an evolving friendship. Neither D.Q. nor Pancho has an aha! moment of understanding, their revelations sneak up on them and they struggle with accepting what they learn. Like Marcelo Sandoval, I appreciated the opportunity to know these boys.
Ryan Gesell (who clearly has other things going on since he hasn't updated his website in two years!) reads the book. I'm trying not to be shallow by commenting on his boyish good looks; he has a lovely voice as well. It's quiet and resonant, and I like what he does with the characters of both boys -- Pancho's simmering anger as well as the way he grudgingly comes to like and appreciate D.Q. are both evident in Gesell's reading. D.Q. speaks with a weary gruffness that tends to get a little one-note, but is consistent and (possibly) true to a character suffering the late stages of a terminal illness.
Gesell also takes an interesting approach to the book's omniscient narrator, reading with a relaxed edge of humor that keeps the story from becoming maudlin. I have one concern about his reading style that I hope he'll improve upon once he narrates a few more books: He regularly drops the final letters of some words and elides entirely over others. It's not so much that I can't understand the author's intent, but it is a wee bit sloppy. Also, he doesn't give the author's full name (leaving off the oh-so-interesting X) when reading the credits. What's up with that?
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork.
Narrated by Ryan Gesell
Listening Library, 2010. 8:18 (unabridged)