Patron Saints of Nothing: A Librarian’s Perspective

Two Christmases ago, my family and I hopped a plane to The Philippines for the holidays. Manila is only a three-hour flight from Shanghai, and Boracay only one hour from Manila. Though Boracay is incredibly beautiful, it was not the greatest vacation for my family. A girl vomited on my husband on the plane, and the next day, both my husband and son came down with the flu. Not such a fun thing when four people have to share one hotel bathroom. Though we did manage some ocean kayaking and paddle boarding on our last day, I spent much of the week tracking down ibuprofen and anti-diarrhea meds, stealing toilet paper from hotel cleaning carts, and staying out of the room so my other son and I didn’t get sick.

Had I ever heard of Philippine president Duterte? Nope. Did I know anything of a drug war? Not then. Hardly not now, either. But after reading Patron Saints of Nothing, I’m inspired to learn. Typing “Philippine President Duterte” into a Google search this morning, the first article I came across, after the Wikipedia entry of course, was this one from three days ago. The headline? “Duterte on track to become Philippines most popular president.” How interesting.

AUTHOR: Randy Ribay
SERIES: none
PUBLISHER: Kokila
PUBLICATION DATE: June 18, 2019
ISBN: 9780525554912
PAGES: 352
SOURCE: Brookyln Public Library OverDrive
GENRE: realistic fiction
SETTING: Detroit, various Philippine locations; modern day
GIVE IT TO: upper-MS, HS, adults

SUMMARY

A few days after hearing news that his Philippine cousin Jun died, high school senior Jay travels to Manila to stay with family. There, Jay plans to investigate the true cause of Jun’s death and find out why no one in the family will even speak Jun’s name. Along the way, Jay will reconnect with family, find himself, and learn about the seedy underbelly of Philippine history, government, the police, sex trafficking, and the drug war.

THE SHORT VERSION

I am an educated adult who lives in Asia and has traveled to The Philippines. I am sad and ashamed that I knew nothing of the Philippine drug war. Three days ago, I could not have told you the name of the current Philippine president. If this was all news to me, it must be so for the vast majority of US high school students and adults, too. Patron Saints of Nothing, which reminds me of The Kite Runner, belongs in every library that serves teens and adults. Don’t miss it.

WHAT I LIKED

Varied characters. We meet many of Jay’s family members, all of whom are interesting and never stereotyped. There is much love there, but there is also pain, stubbornness, secrets, defiance, intimidation, and fear.

Jay is a high school boy who could represent scores of American high school seniors. He plays video games, has one good friend, is disconnected from his family, and plans to go to college because that’s the next step (not because he is inspired by anything). Though he gets good grades, he doesn’t seem especially motivated about anything until he starts asking questions about his cousin Jun’s death.

Descriptions of Philippine places, people, food, smells, homes, and countryside made me feel as though I were really there.

The author is brave. Did Randy Ribay take a risk in writing this book? Has this risk increased since the book’s release and the massive early praise it has received? I think it must have. The Philippine government (i.e., any government) doesn’t seem to take kindly to people who bring attention to this darker side of Duterte’s presidency. Ribay presents many sides of this complex issue, but in the end, Manila does not sound like a safe place to live if you are among the millions of working poor.

Patron Saints of Nothing brings attention to major issues that aren’t known to most people outside The Philippines. It challenges us as readers to stop “just walking by,” to stop ignoring problems (both personal and political) and start talking about them.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

I truly loved Patron Saints of Nothing and read nearly all of it in one sitting. I can’t think of anything I didn’t like except maybe the mini-romance between Jay and Mia. It wasn’t necessary and didn’t add anything to the story.

LIBRARIANS WILL WANT TO KNOW

Themes: family problems, Philippine drug war, sex trafficking of young girls, poverty, slums, police violence, government suppression of news

Would adults like Patron Saints of Nothing? Yes! I strongly recommend adults read this book. It’s interesting and will give you some perspective on atrocities happening right now in another part of the world.

Would I buy this for my high school library? Yes! The vast majority of American high school students have not been to The Philippines and know nothing about life and politics there. Despite his Philippine heritage, Jay represents the modern American teenager well. It’s impossible not to contrast Jay’s life with that of his cousin Jun.

Would I buy this for my middle school library?: I would, but some would not. SLJ actually recommends Grades 10+, and I’m betting that’s mainly for the sex trafficking and drug references. But I think the reality of sex trafficking is something all teens need to be aware of. Trafficking descriptions don’t get graphic, but readers will know generally what happened to one of the characters. There are also references to drugs, but like the sex trafficking, it happened in the past and is not described in detail.

I think this book is great for eighth graders and that it could inspire them to actually learn more about the world outside their front door. It’s also a way to give my Philippine students some much-needed representation in the library. A big yes from me, but I know that some middle school librarians prefer to stay from the sex trafficking and drug references.

ANY RED FLAGS? TRIGGER WARNINGS?

Language: medium–includes f*ck, prostitute, and sh*t. Nothing gratuitous or grossly unnecessary.

Sexuality: mild–one character tells a story of sex trafficking, but it isn’t described in detail

Violence: mild-medium–many references to police killings, some described; some readers may be frightened by a “ghost” that visits Jay

Drugs/Alcohol: medium-high–many references to using and selling specific drugs including marijuana and shabu (methamphetamine); one story about how meth is used to stave off hunger

BOOKTALK OR DISPLAY THIS WITH:

Let’s discuss it! Did you previously know about the political situation in The Philippines? Do you think middle school students should learn about it, even if that means they read about the unsavory realities of life for poor people there?

 

6 Comments

  • Leigh, so sorry your vacation to Boracay was filled with illness. When the kids were little that happened to us in Las Vegas; our son who had begged to see Blue Man Group vomited explosively right in the middle of the performance and then it got worse for the remainder of the trip. I truly worried that we wouldn’t be able to take the flight home. That little boy is now married to April from the Philippines and they just returned from a fabulous trip that included Boracay. They had a wonderful 2nd honeymoon and the pictures were wonderful.
    April just finished her first year of teaching American 8th graders English/Language Arts here in Tennessee. I’m going to share your review with her. Thanks for the wonderful blog.

    Reply
    • Ugh, poor baby! It is the worst when kids are sick, but when they are sick on vacation? That’s extra-bad. We hope to return to The Philippines and try again. Boracay was absolutely gorgeous, and I’ve heard lots about the whale sharks in Cebu.

      Reply
  • Maybe it’s from growing up in Hawaii, that the Philippines and the leader was always in the news. Plus the embassy was right in front of my high school. I’ve seen videos of Duterte and that dude …

    Reply
    • That’s why Patron Saints is so important, I think. Aside from being an interesting story, it really brings today’s news to the attention of our young people. The outrage Jay felt at his cousin’s death felt real and sticks with you. I’ve looked up so much information about it since I finished the book.

      Reply
  • A great review, as always, Leigh! I’ve just ordered this on Overdrive so long, will get a physical copy soon. Our teens down south in Africa also need to learn about issues in other countries, although generally, I think we’re less insulated than American kids. Interesting to see that Overdrive list it as juvenile fiction. I’ve recommended that be changed to YA.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Rose! I would agree that my kids in Shanghai are also more globally-aware than my US students were, but books like this really help bring the world closer to them. And you are right–Patron Saints is not “juvenile fiction.” Good on you for requesting the change.

      Reply

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