Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. He Forgot to Say Goodbye. Simon & Schuster, 2008. 321p. Grades 9-12. Realistic Fiction.
Ramiro Lopez and Jake Upthegrove are both forgotten sons—their fathers left when they were extremely young, and they have had little to no contact with them since. Although Ramiro and Jake seem superficially to be totally different, Ramiro being from the barrio of El Paso and Jake from the rich west side of town, their shared feelings of anger, regret, and sadness over their fathers’ abandonment connect them at a level deeper than skin color or wealth. Through the interweaving of Ramiro and Jake’s first-person narration, Sáenz tells the story of the boys’ growing connection and friendship over the course of two very traumatic weeks during their senior year of high school.
Thoughts– First off, I would like to say that I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. I was put off by the title, the cover page, and the blurb on the back of the book—yes, I judged this book harshly by its cover, and found it seriously wanting. Also, I absolutely could not stand Jake at the beginning of the book; I just wanted to hurry through his sections so I could get back to Ramiro. That being said, I ended up loving this book. I loved the El Paso setting, I loved the way Sáenz weaves the two boys’ stories together in an organic way, I loved all the references to “canon” literature, and though I adored Ramiro from page 1, I even came to love Jake.
At the top of the list of my favorite things about this book is the setting. You are so immersed in the world of El Paso in this book. The use of Spanish throughout the narrative, the description of specific places in El Paso, and the continual discussion of class and race politics all make the city of El Paso more than just backdrop setting for the story—it does seem to have a life of its own, to be character in its own right. The specificity of place is extraordinarily strong, but I don’t think that limits the book. Yes, it is very uniquely El Paso, but the city shares similarities with many other places in Texas and the rest of the United States, most strikingly with San Antonio. My students in San Antonio would have ADORED this book. They would have seen all those cultural and socio-economic parallels in their own hometown, and they would have seen themselves mirrored in Ramiro, Alejandra, and the Lopez family—mirrors they did not get to see often in literature. It was fascinating for me to see those parallels (all the talk of food made me miss San Antonio) and to also see the differences in the two major Mexican-American cities in Texas.
To me, Sáenz also does an excellent job interweaving the two boys’ stories in a realistic fashion. It doesn’t feel forced when they finally start hanging out together, and you see the underlying issues both have with the relationship in general. I thought the romance in the book seemed a little forced and a little too “meant to be,” but overall, I really bought the growing connections between all the characters. I also think Sáenz manages his references to the “great books” like The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations well. He even slips in some intertextuality with the scene at Jake’s birthday party—the echoes of Gatsby were so strong for me in that section! Ramiro as Nick Carroway? I thought that was pretty cool, and I think teen readers who have read Fitzgerald, as Ramiro has, would definitely pick up on that as well.
As for our two narrators? Well, I ended up really enjoying both of their voices by the end, even if it didn’t initially start out so well in regards to Jake. The two boys repetitive use of phrases (Jake’s “destroy” and Ramiro’s “effen”) grated on my nerves a little, but upon reflection, I can see the point because all of us get hung up on certain sayings and just beat them into the ground sometimes, especially teenagers with their keen sense of lingo. I think both narrators are relatable, although I’d maintain that Ramiro is more likeable, and it was nice to see their growth in emotional maturity even though the book takes place over a short period of time. Very often teens have to grow up quickly—sometimes almost instantly—and I thought that was well-portrayed in the book.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with He Forgot to Say Goodbye, and I think it would really speak to teens at their level. It is easily readable, fast-paced, and I think it portrays groups, both socio-economic and ethnic, that are often overlooked. Great characters, distinctive voice and use of language, and extremely true to life. Now if only we could change that title…