by Yvonne Su
Part of LibroMobile's Tiny Review series
Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land begins with the death a father: Yano dies in a plane crash on the way to the Dominican Republic, where he had been raising a second family for sixteen years. His death lowers the curtain on the theater of his life and the women who have been made to play parts in it: Camino and her tía in the DR, Yahaira and her mami Zoila in New York City. In the aftermath of Yano’s death, these women are forced to confront the roles he played—a good father and a faithless husband—and who they become in his absence.
At first, the way the women grieve for him makes it feel like Yano was their sun; his death would extinguish and throw them off the orbits he had carefully constructed to avoid their collision. However, his death turns out to be a gift. What results is a bond between the women that never would have been while he was living.
Acevedo’s novel in verse switches perspectives between half-sisters Camino and Yahaira. In dual perspective stories, one character inevitably becomes more likeable than the other, but Acevedo lets both protagonists shine and struggle. In this case, Camino’s story at first seems more compelling because the stakes are higher: as a poor teenage girl in the DR, now orphaned, her survival is in question.
Meanwhile, for Yahaira, a former chess player growing up in New York City, life is much more secure. So it is Yahaira who takes the initiative of intertwining the threads of their lives. Acevedo lets readers sit with the Yahaira as she goes through the full spectrum of emotions: anger at her father’s betrayal, grief at his death, pain with her mother, and a deep desire to meet her sister, the only one who might feel the same.
Acevedo’s skill shines when the girls tell the story of how their father met their mothers. Devastatingly, it is the same story. Yahaira tells us how, according to Mami, “the crowd parted as he walked toward […] the woman he said he’d one day wife.” Camino says, “Although the friend was clearly taken by him, Mamá […] knew he’d be the greatest love of her life.” The reader sees Yano’s deceit at making both families genuinely feel that they mattered to him. He seems undeserving of their grief, yet it is also completelyunderstandable.By having the two protagonists tell this story to the reader, rather than to each other, Acevedo puts us in the perspective of Yano himself. It becomes harder to judge him. The story also gives insight to how painful it is to unlearn the myths about father figures.
Acevedo manages to describe not only grief, but nationality and class divides. The sisters are afforded different options because one is a U.S. citizen, the other is not. They both experience sexual harassment, but only one of their lives is threatened by it. A testament to Acevedo’s writing is that the way these divides play out doesn’t feel like a hierarchy, making one character more deserving of our sympathy than the other. Instead, the reader feels invested in how both girls might defeat their personal demons.
While Clap When You Land takes place in a machismo culture, the women in the story exercise incredible agency. Patriarchy is nuanced: It is the thing that makes women doubt themselves and feel unsafe. At the same time, patriarchs matter to their families. Feminism in literature isn’t based on villainizing toxic male characters. It’s when the reality of a man is revealed. It happens when women continue living without the most important man in their lives. Acevedo asks us to stretch our framing of toxic masculinity: it exists in spaces where men aren’t, and it extinguishes when women refuse to give any more air to it, choosing instead to nurture themselves.
Yvonne Su is a former elementary teacher. She also writes for Mochi Magazine. She lives in Santa Ana, California.
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