Set in California during the Vietnam War, this evocative novel is a moving portrait of a young man trying to overcome the limits set for him by prejudice and poverty. Jesse is 17 when he leaves his home dominated by his alcoholic stepfather, and moves in with his older brother, Abel. The two boys agree that getting an education is the best way for them to escape the hard physical labor that has been their family's way of life — and that of so many other Mexican Americans — for so long.
Unfortunately, in order to make ends meet, they have to balance their classes at the community college with work in the fields. It's a hard life, made even more difficult by the tense political climate that's developing around them. As Jesse struggles to overcome such universal problems as shyness around girls, he also finds himself drawn to the protests of farm-movement leader Cesar Chavez. It's a confusing life, but the brothers rely on each other to get through the bad times as well as the good. Then Abel gets drafted, and Jesse must decide whether to follow him by enlisting, or carve out his own path.
Since the publication of this book — his first novel for young adults — Gary Soto has gone on to establish a well-deserved reputation as an author who skillfully addresses the concerns common to today's young people, while bringing to light themes particular to Latino teens, as well as many others underrepresented in young adult literature. Though it is set in the past, Jesse has an engaging immediacy, and readers will find themselves in the story, no matter what their background or circumstances may be.