September 23, 2021


Lotería. By Karla Arenas Valenti. Illustrations by Dana Sanmar. Knopf. $16.99.

     A novel of remarkable sensitivity and considerable beauty, and one that gives far more credit for maturity to its intended preteen readers than do most books aimed at this age group, Lotería is an immersive experience from which adults – who really should be among its readers – will take away just as much as younger readers do.

     Like the Pixar movie Coco, Karla Arenas Valenti’s novel draws on el Día de los Muertos, a celebration that shows a vastly different attitude toward death from the typical one in the United States and most other Western nations. There is camaraderie between the living and the departed inherent in el Día de los Muertos, and the close-knit relationship between life and death is made explicit in Lotería by having two of the primary characters in fact be Life and Death. Valenti personifies them exceptionally cleverly: Life is a very-well-dressed man referred to as Catrín, Spanish for “dandy” and the name of one of the tarot-like cards in the Lotería game that gives the book its title. Death is depicted as a lady named Catrina, based on an etching showing a female skeleton wearing elegant clothing. The verbal closeness of the words Catrín/Catrina emphasizes the interrelationship of Life and Death, who are continually referred to in Lotería as friends – and Death, more often than not, brings touches of beauty to the scenes and people the two encounter.

     The playing of the Lotería game is essentially a framing tale for the story of 11-year-old Clara and the otherworldly adventure she experiences after promising to care for her eight-year-old cousin, Esteban, whose mother dies in a freak accident that may nevertheless have been fated – the whole notion of free will vs. determinism, a longstanding and very profound debate in philosophy, underpins the events of the book and is handled in an age-appropriate way that will nevertheless stretch the bounds of young readers’ thinking (and probably that of adults as well). The idea of Life and Death playing cards, with the fate of random mortals hanging in the balance, is scarcely new. Adult readers may think of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (“the game is done – I’ve won, I’ve won,” says “the nightmare Life-in-Death”); moviegoers may think beyond Coco to Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal, whose protagonist plays chess with Death in the full knowledge that he will lose – but who loses in a positive way. Indeed, Bergman’s vision is comparatively close to Valenti’s, although Bergman is not mentioned by Valenti as a source (she does cite plenty of other sources in an excellent, extended Author’s Note at the back of the book).

     Clara is neither more nor less than the human whose fate will be determined by the outcome of the game played by Life and Death – or rather whose fate is already determined if you accept Death’s argument that the order of the cards to be dealt is already set once the pack is shuffled, so Catrín and Catrina are simply revealing Clara’s fate, not in any way causing it. The focus of Lotería shifts again and again between the card game and Clara’s magical-realism journey to a strange land where she needs to learn and obey (or find ways to disobey) a series of rules in order to catch up to Enrique, who is in the clutches of none other than El Diablo (not a figure of overwhelming evil here, however, although certainly a “bad guy”).

     The rules of the magical place that Clara visits require her to give something in order to get something – information, help, anything. After initially believing she has nothing to give, Clara finds more and more within herself that she is able to trade with the denizens of the strange land, eventually becoming no less than a giver of hope – to the equal astonishment of Life and Death, who are compelled by forces that are even beyond them to play Lotería and accept restrictions and requirements, including the need to find a suitable gift for the mortal enmeshed in the game.

     Lotería is a complex, beautifully interwoven novel written with rare perception and a willingness to treat preteen readers with far more respect than authors of novels for this age group generally accord them. The climax is complex and the ending very definitely sad, but there is hope and a kind of bittersweet uplift as well (in this way too Lotería resembles The Seventh Seal). Most of the book’s flaws are niggling ones. At one point Valenti says “the rules [of the game played by Life and Death] were clear: if they failed to complete their game in the allotted [three-day] time, it would be their final round, and they would never meet again.” Why three days? Who sets the rules? What would happen if Life and Death never met again? These are questions never answered, never even asked. Also, there is an intriguing scene in which “a curious bird” lands on the table where Life and Death are playing cards; they, distracted by watching events nearby, are not aware when the bird flies away, “unseen by the two friends as it carried away the top card of the pile, thus unfurling a different destiny for the girl on the bus [Clara].” In what way is Clara’s destiny “different”? What has the bird changed? Was the change foreordained? How is it that neither Life nor Death notices the card deck now numbers 53, not 54? What exactly is the purpose of this scene? Again, these are questions neither answered nor asked.

     But despite a few matters like these that may perplex attentive and curious readers, the book as a whole is so tightly assembled, so elegant in its progression from place to place and event to event, that it becomes a journey of wonder and a very thoughtful exploration of just what it means to make promises, to discover one’s abilities, to protect others, to give of oneself, to do all the things that constitute living life while on a journey to the inevitability of death. The unobtrusive illustrations by Dana Sanmar complement Valenti’s prose well, especially the repeated portrayal of changes in the boards of Life and Death as new cards are revealed and markers are placed upon suitable pictures in bingo-like fashion. Lotería is, in fact, the game of life, or one game of life, and it is one that Clara must lose (as everyone must) but one filled with beauty, care, concern, love and hopefulness – the elements that are preserved through one’s influence on others (as Clara’s are) even when one has passed into the realm of Death. Lotería is an altogether remarkable book, made all the more so by its steadfast refusal to talk down to preteens or try to shield them from difficult choices and life’s inevitable end. More words from Coleridge come to mind regarding the effect of Lotería on sensitive young readers: after the novel is over, they will find themselves, like the poet’s unnamed wedding guest, sadder and wiser.

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