Sleeping with the Light On
Sleeping with the Light On
The restaurant is almost always empty at night now. I am sure it has to do with the colored papers that came flying down. All I can think is that people are afraid to go out. One night the electricity goes out after the last customers leave. Mamá lights some big stumpy candles. Papá locks the big wooden door and puts the metal latch across the front. Sirens are screaming. Maybe a fire truck is racing to a fire, or a police car is hurrying to an accident. But then we hear people running down the street, and the sound of guns and rifles going off. I am very scared. Even Felipe looks frightened. Our parents hug us as we eat warm tortillas, black beans and cheese under the dining-room table. There is nothing more we can do. Huddle together and listen to the government radio station for news.
Davico and big brother Felipe live in Guatemala in the early 1950s where their family resides above La Casita, the family owned restaurant. Life is comfortable and good. Cook Augusto and waiter Otto are not the friendliest but are part of their world, as is Consuelo, their nanny. Even Genghis Khan, a giant lobster who lives in the restaurant tank, is a source of daily interest. This contentment ends when leaflets are dropped on their town, followed by enforced blackouts and sounds of gunfire and sirens in the streets. The country has been invaded. Everybody is scared, especially Davico, but even the special lamp Papa puts near his bed does not stop his fear. The family must flee to America, but there are still trying days ahead for the two brothers.
This quiet, understated chapter book tells of the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’etat as seen from a child’s perspective, capturing Davico’s fear and loss of security. The small daily pleasures of his life are replaced with anxiety and unrest. The story is narrated by Davico, his voice consistently authentic as he leads readers through his experiences without ornamentation, yet engaging the reader fully. The two brothers are well-drawn realistic characters: Davico is vulnerable and rather timid while superior ‘older’ Felipo hides his feelings beneath bravado. Descriptions of life in the restaurant are rich with affectionate detail as is Davico’s fascination with the lobster, Genghis Khan. Equally vivid is his fear and later the monotonous “jail-time” spent with their humorless aunt and uncle as they wait to go to a new home in the United States.
Each chapter is enriched by the inclusion of full-page black and white illustrations that express the mood of the segment and add delightful whimsical details. While in time and place this specific situation is far away for Canadian children today, it speaks to the many similar situations occurring in strife-ridden countries even now, providing much opportunity for discussion. Sleeping with the Light On is an unusual and rewarding read for children aged 6 to 10.
Aileen Wortley is a retired Children’s Librarian from Toronto, Ontario.