Red Midnight

Red Midnight

Author: Ben Mikaelsen

Publication: Harper Collins, 2002

Pages: 224

Overall Rating:   bth_35_zps7a173504[1]                     

Rating for Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Age Category: 9-12

Brief Summary: Santiago Cruz is an indigenous boy from the mountains of Guatemala.  One night, soldiers come and burn his village, killing everyone there.  Santiago and his 4 year old sister, Angelina, are the only survivors.  On the edge of the village they find their Uncle Ramos, near death.  He tells them to flee, use his boat to go to America and tell everyone what has happened to the village.  Santiago and his sister escape down the mountains, stowing rides on trucks until they get to Uncle Ramos’ house.  With the help of a neighbor they outfit his 20 foot sea canoe for a long journey.  Then Santiago and Angelina are on their own, sailing all the way from Guatemala, across the Gulf of Mexico.  Their aim is to reach Florida.  But to get there they will have to battle, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, pirates, sharks, and terrible storms.  To survive, it will take a miracle.

Age of Main Character: 12

What I Liked the Most: This is a tense and compelling story of survival.  I loved all the details of the sea voyage.  The descriptions of the storms and Santiago’s constant fight with the waves were especially good.  I could feel his exhaustion as he battled on, day after day, operating on snatches of sleep whenever the waves were calm.  I also liked his ingenuity in crafting the things that he needs to survive: using part of a plastic bucket that he finds in a river of floating garbage to make a wind screen for the boat, prying a nail from the deck boards and using it to make a fish hook, etc.  Even though he comes from the mountains, Santiago turns out to be a natural sailor, and it’s exciting to watch him wage his personal battle with the elements.

What I Liked the Least: I did not find it believable that Santiago’s Uncle Ramos would know as much as he did about how to sail a boat all the way to America.  He’s a river trader who takes corn as far as the nearest Atlantic port.  Why would he have a map of the waters between Guatemala and the United States or know about the winds and currents to watch out for while sailing to Florida?  And what are the chances that he would really have shared all that information with Santiago long before their village was attacked?  It all felt a little too convenient that an indigenous peasant from the mountains of Guatemala just happened to know as much as he did about how to sail to the United States, even if that was his dream.  It was equally unrealistic that Ramos’s neighbor, Enrique, should be able to teach Santiago as much as he does about how to sail on the ocean.  I know Santiago had to learn all of this somewhere, but it felt a bit forced.

There are certain places – only a few – where the dialogue sounds like a lecture on the evils of the Guatemalan military and the Guatemalan upper class.  I don’t doubt the atrocities that Santiago and the others attribute to the Guatemalan military – not for a second – but as with Uncle Ramos’s knowledge of ocean sailing, the dialogue on this subject felt a little forced.

Santiago is maybe a little too patient and good with his little sister.  He’s under an incredible amount of stress.  After seeing his family murdered in front of his eyes, being left solely responsible for his sister, going on this insane ocean voyage, and suffering from endless hunger and exhaustion it would feel more natural and realistic if he blew up at her sometimes.  Instead he manages to respond calmly no matter what she’s done and comes up with one on-the-spot game after another to get her to cooperate.  He doesn’t even blow up when she defecates in the boat and uses his pants to clean herself up.  That was a bit much.

How Good was the Action?  Don’t expect wild action from this story.  The action comes in the constant tension of the voyage – the hunger and fear as their supplies of food and water dwindle to nothing, the exhaustion of constantly battling the waves, the fear of being caught by soldiers or pirates.  It’s this constant underlying tension that keeps the story moving forward, mixed with the occasional spike provided by a huge storm, seeing a shark prowling the waters off their bow, or some other mishap.  This is not a book for adrenaline junkies, but the constant tension does make for a satisfying read, and during the last third of the book, when their situation is hitting rock bottom, it becomes almost impossible to put down.

How Engaging was the Story?   The tension that comes with putting a 12 year old boy and his sister in the middle of the ocean, on a 20 foot boat with minimal food and water, is enough in itself to make this an engaging story.  But Mikaelsen ups the ante by really getting us into Santiago’s head.  I felt his fear and hunger, his despair as he realizes that each day, each hour, might be his last, and that he may never be able to get his sister to safety.  The weight on his shoulders is immense, and that really comes across in the writing.  There were times towards the middle of the story when my attention wandered a bit, but never so much that I wanted to put the book away, and the last 70 pages were absolutely riveting.

Overall Assessment:  This was an excellent survival story.  Santiago’s constant calm in dealing with his sister was a downside, but that was relatively minor.  If you’re looking for a story about someone overcoming incredible odds, of going far beyond what they ever imagined they might be capable of, then this is a perfect choice.  It also provides some great insights into the lives of the indigenous peasants of Guatemala and what it’s like to live in constant and poverty and fear.

Profanity: None

Sex: None

Violence: Only at the beginning.  There’s a fairly graphic scene in which Santiago’s village is destroyed.  Most of it is second hand.  Santiago states that he watches his family being killed, that he sees rape and torture – though he doesn’t describe it.  He also runs across the body of a friend who has been cut in half, though we don’t see it happen.  So the violence is mostly psychological – just knowing what it is that Santiago and his sister have witnessed.


  1. Having read this I believed it was extremely informative.
    I appreciate you finding the time and effort to put this content together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting.
    But so what, it was still worth it!

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