Juventud (Blakeslee)

Vanessa Blakeslee, 2015
Curbside Splendor Publishing
344 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781940430584

Growing up as the only daughter of a wealthy landowner in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, teenaged Mercedes Martinez knows a world of maids, armed guards, and private drivers.

When she falls in love with Manuel, a fiery young activist with a passion for his faith and his country, she begins to understand the suffering of the desplazados who share her land. A startling discovery about her father forces Mercedes to doubt everything she thought she knew about her life, and she and Manuel make plans to run away together.

But before they can, tragedy strikes in a single violent night. Mercedes flees Colombia for the United States and a life she never could have imagined. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia seeking the truth, but discovers that only more questions await.

In the bristling, beautiful prose that won Vanessa Blakeslee an IPPY Gold Medal for her short story collection Train Shots, Juventud explores the idealism of youth, the complexities of a ravaged country, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—August 6, 1979
Raised—Northeastern Pennsylvania, USA
Education—B.A., Rollins College; M.A., University of Central Florida; M.F.A., Vermont College
   of Fine Arts
Awards—IPPY Gold Metal; Bosque Fiction Prize
Currently—lives in Maitland, Florida

Vanessa Blakeslee's debut short story collection, Train Shots, is the winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction and long-listed for the 2014 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

Vanessa's writing has appeared in tte Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, Paris Review Daily, Toronto Globe and Mail, Kenyon Review Online, and Bustle among many others.

Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.

Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida. (From the author.)

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Book Reviews
A harrowing, international coming-of-age story, Juventud is unforgettable, erotic, and suspenseful. I was willing to follow the protagonist Mercedes anywhere, into the Cali nightclubs, to her shooting lessons, into bed with her lovers, and to the dangerous activist meetings and rallies that mark a point-of-no-return in her adolescence. This novel is part political thriller, part love story. It kept me up at night and that's the highest praise.
Patricia Henley, National Book Award finalist, author of Hummingbird House and In the River Sweet

Riveting, readable, and refreshingly rendered with the news of the world, Vanessa Blakeslee’s remarkable debut novel takes us inside Colombia through the eyes of Mercedes, a privileged half-Colombian girl who leaves what once was the safety of Papi’s hacienda to embark on a life conflicted by both disappointments and splendid achievements. [...] As Mercedes searches for sanctuary in the world, her story echoes the conflicts of our 21st Century’s transnational, uneasy global culture. Juventud is an important novel for our times about the end of innocence.
Xu Xi, author of Habit of a Foreign Sky

Local indie press Curbside Splendor continues to distinguish itself as a literary trendsetter with Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud. This is an ambitious, wide-ranging story about a privileged young Colombian woman. Class, family ties, and the blinding optimism of youth: Blakeslee isn’t shying away from some of the big, timeless issues.
Christine Sneed - Newcity Lit

Juventud makes an excellent pairing with Netflix's series "Narcos," which begins a few decades earlier and traces the rise of the Medellín Cartel. While the series—shot in Colombia—focuses on those who drove and helped maintain the violence there, Blakeslee's novel traces its eventual effects on one young woman's life. Together (and with the caveat that both take some poetic license), they're a crash course in the history of a place I didn't know at all.
Margot Harrison - The First 50 Pages

There’s plenty of moral ambiguity in Juventud (Youth) as well, but Vanessa Blakeslee’s focus is on the experiences of her narrator, Mercedes Martínez, rather than in exposing and criticizing policy. From the opening pages, rich in detail and suspense, her novel is vivid and full of life…. If Juventud does have an agenda it must be this: As Colombia seeks peace–as in any other conflict zone on this earth–Blakeslee’s novel makes us ask how a person forgives and moves on when the truth remains veiled, when you can’t even be sure who or what is to blame and therefore who you must choose or refuse to forgive.”
Diane Lefer - LA Progressive

Discussion Questions
1. What did you learn about the various forces at play in Colombia—the drug cartels, the landowners, the Catholic Church, the social justice advocates, the government, and the paramilitary?

2. Both Catholicism and Judaism encourage forgiveness among adherents. What lessons does Juventud teach readers about how and when to forgive others about perceived wrongs?
3. Throughout her life, Mercedes believes that she has convincing evidence of her father’s role in the murder of her lover, Manuel. She struggles with whether to confront and/or forgive her father. Should Mercedes forgive Diego even though he has not confessed to or acknowledged a role in Manuel’s murder? Does someone who has wronged another need to “earn” forgiveness or repent in order for the aggrieved person to forgive them?
4. Before leaving for boarding school in the U.S., Mercedes is tempted to ask her father about Manuel’s murder. (Chapter 13, page 221) She eventually confronts her father much later, as an adult, when she works at the State Department. What stopped Mercedes from confronting her father when she first left Colombia as a teen? How might an earlier confrontation have changed things between them?

5. In Miami, Mercedes is reunited with her mother, who lives in Jerusalem (Chapter 15, pages 232-236). Mercedes expects intimacy and affection from her mother. However, Paula seems distant. Why did Paula seem to struggle with her feelings about reuniting with her teenaged daughter?

6. As a young woman, Mercedes and the young, idealistic, social justice advocates with whom she associates see the world in absolutes, right and wrong, as black and white, not shades of gray—hence the story’s title, Juventud (“youth” in Spanish). How does this outlook compare to generational differences in thought and action in violence-prone areas outside of Colombia, such as Israel or Iran? Or conflicts within the U.S.?
7. After Mercedes learns the truth, what do you think she will do to “make things right” with her father? In hindsight, does Mercedes feel that she needs to ask Diego to forgive her for her suspicions of his wrongdoing?

8. At the end of the novel, how does Mercedes feel about blaming her father for Manuel’s murder for so many years? Is it regret? Remorse? What’s the difference? How does her background and upbringing inform her earlier suspicions? How much of her suspicious can she attribute to youthful naiveté or gullibility?

9. When Mercedes learns the truth about Manuel’s murder, she reflects that if he hadn’t died, she would have had an entirely different life (Chapter 20, page 331). Did this passage prompt you to recall any similar cross roads in your life and imagine a different outcome for your current life? How much of our lives, especially in young adulthood, is subject to personal decisions, and how much is dictated by external forces beyond our control?
(Questions courtesy of the author.)

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