a novel by Daniel Acosta
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⭐️ 2018 Best Young Adult Historical Fiction
⭐️ 2019 Paterson Prize for Books for Young People
Poetry Center at PCCC
⭐️ 2019 Skipping Stones Honor Award
Skipping Stones Magazine
⭐️ 2019 Best Children's Book, Historical Fiction
Children's Book Council
The Southern Pacific railroad tracks mark the northern boundary of the barrio and serve as the dramatic backdrop to the story of four pre-teen friends, a dead hobo, a racist cop, and a junkie, ex-con uncle. The novel’s title represents the railroad tracks that play a pivotal role in the story.
The twelve-year-old protagonist and narrator, Manuel Maldonado, Jr., is known to his Mexican-American barrio as Man-on-Fire for his red hair and the port-wine stain that is his birthmark.
Throughout the novel, “Man” and his boyhood friends are haunted by "the Turk," a dirty cop who harasses the people of the barrio, and by the prospect of going to prison for killing the hobo.
Complications develop when Man's uncle Rudy comes home on parole from prison to an unwelcome reception from Man's father, Rudy's older brother.
Iron River is set in the summer and fall of 1958, in Sangra, the Mexican-American barrio in the Los Angeles suburb of San Gabriel. Man-on-Fire lives across the street from the SP tracks. The setting allows for the exploration of racial prejudice, family crises, and the adventures of a group of powerless adolescent boys.
An element of the topography is the San Gabriel Mountain range north of the town. One of the mountains has a feature that resembles a heart with an arrow piercing it. This wounded heart motif surfaces throughout the novel. In addition, the SP tracks are the setting for the precipitating action of the story and represent Man-on-Fire's helplessness to change the trajectory of his young life.
"I'm telling you this now because I don't know when I'm going to die. If you ask me why is a twelve-year-old kid thinking about dying, well I don't want to die. But sometimes people die who aren't old. So I want to tell you this story in case I die before I get old."
Manuel "Man-on-Fire" Maldonado, Jr., protagonist/narrator
INTERVIEWS AND ARTICLES
Kirkus Starred Review:
"Haunted by nightmares and the dangers of life in a Los Angeles barrio, Manuel Maldonado Jr.’s courageous testimony forever changes his community.
"Born with a port-wine stain that earns him the nickname 'Man-On-Fire,' 12-year-old Manny plays with a group of three friends in the shadow of the Pacific Railroad in the late 1950s. He and his buddies engage in dangerous games along the tracks, throwing oranges at hobos who ride on the cars. When they find a dead body and run into trouble with a crooked policeman, they seem destined for juvenile detention.
"With the return of an uncle from prison, a drug-ridden hometown, and a racist cop on the loose, Manny’s small circle of friends and family is his only safety net. In the wake of another death, a secret comes to light, leading the way to forgiveness in his family.
"A story about a sensitive Mexican boy in a multicultural community that also includes Japanese-Americans and African-Americans, the novel treats difficult themes with hope.
“'I’m telling you this now because I don’t know when I’m going to die,' our young narrator says at the beginning of the novel. By the end of the story, readers will understand the obstacles thrown in the paths of youths from disadvantaged communities.
"A dense story with rich associative leaps, the novel will prompt discussions about race, class, sexuality, and gender. (Historical fiction. 12-18)"
School Library Journal Starred Review:
"Set in San Gabriel, CA in 1958, this novel captures life from the perspective of 12-year-old Manuel Maldonado, Jr. or Manny, who lives in an ethnically diverse section of the city. He is set apart from the majority of his Mexican American community due to his blue eyes, light skin, red hair, and large port-wine birthmark, which has earned him the nickname 'Man-on-Fire.'
"Manny is a gentle soul, but manages to get into constant trouble with his mischievous friends by doing things like throwing fruit at homeless people on passing trains or sneaking onto a stopped caboose and inadvertently being carried far away. However innocent Manny’s infractions are, they land him in serious trouble—finding a dead person, witnessing the murder of a Black child—and result in heavy burdens of guilt, grief, and fear given the racist practices of the town police. Detailed descriptions of daily life and family members capture the essence of Manny’s heritage in a time period and setting greatly impacted by institutionalized racism, drugs, gangs, and the lingering trauma of violence experienced by military war veterans.
"The trains are a constant backdrop to the story; iron currents of metal and noise, thundering through the boy’s nighttime dreams and daytime reality, as he comes of age.
VERDICT An essential title for any library."
"The train tracks bisecting San Gabriel, California, separate Manuel's Mexican American neighborhood from the area's Anglo population. It is also the iron river bringing drifters to town, and it makes a dangerous playground for Manuel and his friends. In a pivotal year, 1958, the eighth-grader also views it as a road leading outward as his world expands in disturbing ways.
"A light like a powerful train beacon shines on prejudice, family demons, and a corrupt local police officer who preys on minorities. Acosta's intricate plot illustrates childhood naiveté and guilt—Manuel and his friends are convinced they accidentally killed a hobo who fell from a train, a belief exploited by a bad cop. It also gives readers a detailed portrait of a time and place connected in important ways to the present.
"Manuel, nicknamed 'Man-on-Fire' because of a birthmark and red hair, is a worthy and believable hero who will intrigue thoughtful teens as he fights to stand for truth and himself. A powerful debut." Karen Kruze
De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children:
"Taking place in the late 1950s, Iron River is a gritty, no-holds-barred telling from the point of view of a Mexican boy about to enter 8th grade. Everyone in the small town of Sangra (short for 'San Gabriel,' ten miles east of Los Angeles) knows Manuel Maldonado, Jr., as 'Man-on-Fire' because of his red hair and a large birthmark. His friends call him 'Manny' or 'Man' for short, and, to some of his relatives, he is 'Little Man.'
"Part of a strong, tight-knit, loving family, Manny lives with his hard-working parents, grandparents, and younger sister and brother in a small house practically abutting the railroad tracks; and other relatives live close by. Here, everyone knows everyone, and Sangra is a place where people’s experiences are riddled by poverty and drugs and violence and discrimination—and the scary, frequent, 'baby earthquakes' of passing trains on the iron river.
"Nevertheless, Sangra is home, and Manny’s narrative is straightforward—without a hint of 'we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place' self-pity. Rather, readers will see neighbors helping neighbors, especially at times of need and at funerals. On the Maldonados’ front porch, for instance, is a 'hobo chair,' where Grandma offers homeless men who ride the rails a sandwich, a place to rest in quiet solitude, and rosary blessings.
"Manny is well aware of his neighborhood’s history and culture, yet he internalizes popularized racist 'history.' For instance, when he and his friend Danny first started playing 'the Alamo,”'he says,
'[We] couldn’t decide if we wanted to be the Texans or the Mexicans. Me and Danny are Mexican. To be the Texans would feel like traitors. But the Texans in the movie won, and we didn’t’ want to be losers….When we aren’t killing Mexicans, me and Danny and our friends Little and Marco throw rocks at trains.'
"And some of the harsh realities of life are taken lightly, as well:
'Little’s dad went back to Mexico after the Fourth of July and Little told us he still wasn’t back. He said his mom said Mr. Guti probably got stopped by the border patrol as a wetback. Big’s mom said he probably had to check up on all his other families down there, and it would probably take some time. We all laughed.'
"Yet, Manny also is quick to notice and comment upon the everyday racist micro-aggressions in his neighborhood and beyond:
'[We] got kicked out [of the movies] mainly because we’re Mexican. It’s the white kids that flatten out their popcorn boxes and throw them at the screen when the lights go out before the second movie starts, but [white kids] never get kicked out, and Mexicans don’t even buy popcorn.'
"When Manny and his friends, unaware of the consequences for Mexican youngsters, place themselves in dangerous situations—such as when they’re caught train-hopping—punishment from their fathers is a swift and painful belt-whipping, something they will always remember. And afterward, Manny’s mom rubs his wounds with lard and wraps them with soft pieces of flour sack, and his grandma and mom tuck him into bed and bless him over and over.
"The family and community members are complex, and Manny’s narration and the dialogue realistically include Spanglish, code switching, and Caló. Especially refreshing is that neither the Spanish nor these phrases are translated. Rather, readers who speak Spanish will go with the flow and readers who don’t will understand the meanings from the context. As well, terms of respect are given to those who earn them, such as 'a sus órdenes,' always, to Grandma.
"When Manny’s uncle, Rudy, is released from prison and returns home, the family circle surrounds him:
'Rudy moved slow when he went over and kissed Grandma on the top of her head. I looked at her face. She was smiling but worry was standing right behind her smile.
'Me and Grandma watched him walk to my old room. He looked shorter than Dad but he was bent over so I couldn’t be sure. And he walked kind of sideways, like those dogs you see walking down the street that got hit by a car but lived. You can’t see any cuts or blood, but you know their insides are messed up, and they walk like Rudy.
'Prison has worn him down, so be nice to him,' Grandma said and patted my hand.'
"In this community, at this time, hard situations abound and resolutions—where there are some—are not always neat. And sometimes a family’s love and support are not enough. Rudy is a broken man, and he’s ultimately returned to prison, never to come home. The boys lob oranges at hobos on passing trains (for which they get grounded); later, Manny is obsessed with the thought that they may have killed a hobo whose body they found on the tracks. And when he takes a short cut through the San Gabriel station, Manny witnesses a racist cop, a “mean son-of-a-bitch” who is known to prey on minorities in the Sangra community—killing a Black teenager:
'I heard a sound I’d heard once before. I stopped and listened harder. It was the sound of somebody getting beat up, and it was coming from inside. I hid in the shadows…. I leaned against the wall and waited for the sound to stop…. I heard punches and kicks and the voice of a boy crying. A man’s hard voice told him to shut up and called the boy
dirty names and 'nigger.'
'The boy cried and cried, and then he started moaning and then he was quiet…. A shadow passed by me walking fast and breathing hard. Even though it was dark, I could see who it was. The shadow turned to look back, and I thought he saw me, but then he walked into the night and in a minute I heard a car start up and burn rubber and drive away fast.'
"The sight of his friend’s brother’s horribly mutilated body is Manny’s wake-up call. He must now decide whether or not to come forward and possibly risk his own freedom—and maybe even his life.
"While Manny’s character growth and his coming to speak out are central to the story, many of the chapters read as vignettes; each of them featuring family, friends or strangers who live in or pass through Sangra. Also running through the story is Manny’s matter-of-fact nighttime incontinence and, by the end, it is resolved—symbolic of how his life is changing for the better.
"The many layers of this beautifully built-up picture of an intelligent, goofy young kid who’s well aware of his surroundings and faces them head-on is a brilliant debut of a promising young writer. Iron River will prompt discussions of race, class, culture, and teenage sexuality, and resonate with middle-grade through high school readers. It’s highly recommended." Beverly Slapin
"Acosta writes with a gorgeous clarity and a truth to the voice of his young narrative, an innocent boy witnessing violence and racism from his vantage point in a loving family living on the edge of poverty. This is a tale about boys growing up and coming to understand how hard the world can be."
Skipping Stones, a Multicultural Literary Magazine:
"This is a powerful coming-of-age story. The author has done an excellent job of telling it skillfully."
"With his debut novel Iron River, LA author Daniel Acosta pulls off something rare: Acosta weaves a vivid world inhabited by a young boy and his family that readers can easily hop like a passing freight, while maintaining a unique voice that never becomes caricature or stagnant. Iron River moves at the pace of the locomotives that surround the narrator’s life, and the often violent twists and turns hit just as hard.
"Manny’s family lives outside Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley, aka Sangra, surrounded on all sides by the claustrophobia-inducing railroads that lend themselves the novel’s title and haunt Manny’s dreams – as if he didn’t have enough to worry about.
"His father and mother work hard to keep Manny in a safe home - then his Uncle Rudy arrives sprung fresh from prison. A somewhat reformed felon and former heroin-user, Acosta’s Rudy is pure dichotomy; like a stick of dynamite with a lit fuse, Rudy is caught between youth and middle age, wanting to do the right thing despite a violent world that finds him no matter where he runs.
"Leading that hunt is ‘Turk,’ a cop who reigns over Sangra and its residents with impunity. He’s got it out for everyone, and Manny believes even he and the Turk are playing a game of pit-and-pendulum; having thrown fruit at hobos atop a passing train, Manny believes Turk is going to nail him after a hobo is found dead in the train’s wake. He anxiously wets his bed and sweats through the days, waiting for the moment the cops are certain to descend and throw him in a cell beside his uncle.
"Though the story is set in the technologically simpler era of 1958, Iron River doesn’t waste its readers time reminiscing. There’s a charm seeing Manny and his friends hunting up pieces of garbage to set on the rails for the thrill of seeing the engines run it over; then, when they climb aboard an untended caboose for a closer look, they suddenly find themselves being pulled down the Iron River to parts unknown.
"Acosta’s novel is almost timeless. Iron River often presents a situation and shows the character’s reactions rather than telling a reader how it was ‘back in the days.’ And that may be the greatest trick to come down the rails in a long time."
ABOUT DANIEL ACOSTA
I was born in Monterey Park, California to Gustavo and Maria Acosta and grew up in the San Gabriel of the novel, living across the street from the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks until my teens. After grammar school at San Gabriel Mission School, I spent my high school years in the Catholic Dominguez Seminary in Compton, California.
After seminary I majored in English at California State University, Los Angeles, where I studied creative writing with Leon Surmelian.
I graduated from Cal State L.A. in 1969 and was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. Three years later I began my 34 years teaching English at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, California.
I retired from teaching in 2007 to concentrate on my writing. My wife Linda and I have four children and we live in Rosemead, California. Iron River is a labor of love for my neighborhood and is my debut novel.
Finally, I'd love to visit your school to discuss my novel, so drop me a line!
Photo/Robert Jimenez Photography