The Border by Steve Schafer

By Ekta R. Garg

December 20, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: September 5, 2017

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

Four teens in Northern Mexico run for their lives when a drug cartel targets them. The teens decide to cross the border into the United States and learn firsthand of the excruciating hardships undertaken by those who follow the same path. Author Steve Schafer does a brilliant job of making the excoriating desert heat a reality in his realistic, heartbreaking novel The Border.

Cousins and best friends Pato and Arbo can’t wait for the start of Arbo’s sister’s quinceañera. A quince, as it’s known for short, always means great food and a family celebration. Life may be hard in their small town in Northern Mexico there on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, but Pato and Arbo have no complaints. Their fathers, brothers, share a construction business and always talk about bringing the boys into it one day. Now that they’re both 16, Pato can practically see himself and Arbo working side by side in the family business.

For now, though, the boys get ready to enjoy Carmen’s quince. Invited to the party, among others, is Marcos, a year older than Pato and Arbo and soccer superstar. Marcos oozes confidence, on the field as well as with girls. His little sister, Gladys, also tags along to the party, and Pato has always noticed her. She stands out from all the other girls because of a quiet dignity that she possesses and that Pato appreciates.

At Carmen’s quinceañera, the four teens sneak behind the house to smoke a cigarette. As they talk, they hear gunshots, which have come from Arbo’s home. The targets? Everyone at the party, particularly Pato and Arbo’s fathers. In a burst of bravery, Marcos runs into the home and manages to shoot one of the killers before the four teens run.

The small act of revenge brings on life-changing consequences. After seeking help from an unlikely friend, the teens find out that the people who attacked their families weren’t just run-of-the-mill mercenaries. They were members of the drug cartel La Frontera, Spanish for The Border, and they had serious problems with Pato and Arbo’s fathers. Since Marcos killed one of the gang members, La Frontera now wants to find Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys and execute them as well.

They’ve lost their entire families, and now they must face the reality of giving up the only home they’ve ever known. But what other choice do they have? If they stay in Mexico, no matter where they go, La Frontera will find them. Leaving means crossing the other border, the one that leads them north to the U.S. and a life full of uncertainty. Eventually, they opt for the latter. A life of uncertainty at least means they’re alive. But they’ll have to conquer the desert before they can think of living again.

Author Steve Schafer explains in an author’s note about the extensive research he did for the story, and the novel is all the better for it. He builds well rounded characters in the four teens, and while Pato leads the way as the point-of-view character readers will feel like they know all four of the travelers by the end.

In addition to the people, however, Schafer allows the desert to become a fifth protagonist in the book, and, really, the desert turns into the story’s linchpin. It becomes just as crucial for Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys to get along with desert conditions as it is for them to accommodate one another. At some point, in fact, the drug cartel turns into a distant second to their worries about how to survive crossing the Sonoran.

Schafer doesn’t hold back on all the other story points, which results in a richly layered novel. From the initial attack at the quinceañera to the grief the teens experience at losing their families and the entire experience of securing a coyote to take them across the desert, Schafer draws readers into the story and will keep them turning pages with the most intimate details. The book’s authenticity, thanks to the sound research, makes it feel almost like a memoir.

While Schafer may have intended the book for the YA audience, adult readers will certainly enjoy and benefit from reading this story. It could offer a necessary component to the larger conversation today on immigration, its necessity, and its challenges. I recommend all readers Binge The Border by Steve Schafer.