Book Summary of Gary Soto's Help Wanted
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“Paintball in the Wild”
The first in Gary Soto’s Help Wanted collection of short stories finds Luis Miguel, or Michael as his friend calls him, getting ready to go to his first paintball war. Miguel is a junior high student and a corporal in his school’s ROTC program. He seems to define his success in the program by the number of medals he has attained, and is hoping that his ROTC leader will count this experience toward a medal that his friend Trung is already wearing on his uniform. Trung, who acts more like an ROTC acquaintance than a real friend, is Vietnamese and as his father is dropping everyone off at the paintball site, he states angrily in Vietnamese that his father died in the war. Soon after this, Miguel sees three white men who are all wearing t-shirts proclaiming that they are Vietnam veterans. Predictably, they are grouped on the team that opposes Miguel and his friends.
All of Soto’s stories have what he describes as misfit characters. Most with no friends, or questionable ones at best. What makes Paintball unique is its perspective. Miguel comes into the paintball arena as the innocent, wanting to confirm his status as a true cadet, a warrior. His Vietnamese friends seem to be there just for the enjoyment. As Miguel is considering how skilled and dangerous the Vietnam vets might be, Trung and his brothers are laughing and talking to the vets in Vietnamese. Miguel actually hears Trung laughing over the sound of paintball explosions, and at one point in the heat of battle, finds Trung talking to one of the vets about where he bought his gun. This is not lost on the reader or on Miguel, who finds it strange, but this clashing of cultural differences on a pseudo battlefield leaves the reader wondering how much of father’s culture and attitudes have been taken seriously by Trung and his brothers. “Paintball” may answer some questions for Miguel about his search for manhood, but it poses new questions for the reader, which makes it a great story for discussion.
“Sorry, Wrong Family”
Young, proper Carolina feels completely disgusted with her family. Her little brother, David, is crude. He backwashes into the family 2-liter of Dr. Pepper, he doesn’t wash his hands, and he dribbles food down his shirt. Her mother burps at the dinner table and is more concerned with polishing her nails than with the behavior of her children. Carolina’s father buries himself in the sports section at family dinners, and only notices his family when the volume rises to a shout. Carolina is horrified at her family’s behavior, and to top it off her best friend, Elena, has ditched her for a boy. Not only has Elena abandoned her; she’s joined the boy in making fun of Carolina. Carolina finds solace in the only place she can, her heroine, a columnist called Miss Manners. She clutches to the hope of a more proper and beautiful world, frequently writing to her heroine and finding joy in a generic response letter.
Gary Soto's "Yeah, Right!" tells an entertaining story through the suspicious perspective of Javier Mendoza as he deals with the affections and dubious stories of a neighborhood school friend named Veronica. Veronica often brings outlandish items to school, such as penguin eggs and one of Thomas Edison's light bulbs. In addition to the items, Veronica tells Javier stories about her life that he just can't believe: Her father has a helicopter. He owns a ranch and a vineyard. Various items she owns used to belong to famous people.
Despite Javier's attempts at avoiding Veronica, they spend time together sipping milkshakes and negotiating sales at his Tia Marta's yard sale. Told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, the reader experiences the same doubt and wonder that Javier Mendoza does. Javier's experience is easy to relate to when Soto writes, "She won't stop, Javier thought. She lies and lies and lies. But could he be wrong? The idea flashed in his mind" (62). The reader has to decide whether or not Veronica is who she says she is or just a girl with a fanciful imagination.
The story culminates with the answer to Javier's doubt. He suffers an awkward shame when Veronica and her father hover above him in the aforementioned helicopter. As the helicopter chugs above him, Javier learns the story's lesson of giving people the benefit of the doubt, no matter how hard it may be. Soto's short story is sweet and endearing. He peppers the pages with familiar American cultural references, such as Bart Simpson and Jolly Ranchers, which makes it a fun read for kids and adults.
“How Becky Garza Learned Golf”
Becky Garza’s uncle gives her an old set of golf clubs and a promise to take her to a golf course once she can play. Becky turns a nearby vacant lot into an eighteen-hole golf course and challenges her best friend Dulce to a round. Dulce wins effortlessly, strands of red licorice hanging out of her mouth as she repeatedly beats a disgusted Becky at the “thinking man’s game.” Even Becky’s ancient neighbor, Dona Carmen Maria, seems to have more of a talent for the sport than Becky. But while the two are playing the old woman smells smoke; her frijoles are burning and she’s locked herself out of her house. While the woman cries out for her dog and parakeet Becky thinks to smash the window of the back door with her golf club. She opens the door and calls to the dog, who still won’t come out. Eventually Dona Carmen Maria walks past Becky into the kitchen, turns the stove off, and runs water over the beans, leaving Becky feeling guilty and terrified over what her parents mighDecember 19, 2005wed offers to practice golf with her and starts to run home, flinging her golf ball out into the course. It rolls into the sixth hole, but the miraculous shot is too little, too late, in the face of Becky’s frustration, impatience and fear.
Richard Ortega takes enormous pride in the sharp creases and glossy shoes of his Junior ROTC uniform. He sees himself as one of a handful of students in his middle school who care about Cadets, about classes, who are going places in life or even going on to high school. Richard is plagued by the “losers” but also by the dedicated, more successful student and ROTC member Sergeant Desiree Sanchez. Even her family is happier, Richard thinks, compared to his absent father and moody mother. One Saturday morning Richard is volunteering, filling bags of food for needy families, when one of the troublemakers from cadets comes in with his fierce mother and three siblings. Richard finds himself relieved when they leave and uncomfortable at his own insincerity as he smiles at the families in dirty clothes. A grandmotherly woman requests help carrying her groceries and Richard takes them to her home, a rundown house filled with layers of cats. The old woman asks Richard to change a light bulb for her, but seems to be asking for more help than Richard can possibly provide. Her grandson is at home, one of the losers who threaten Richard in the school bathroom. Let him change the light bulb, Richard thinks, but the grandmother seems more frightened than ever. Richard flees the house wondering why people are this way. That’s just the way it is, Richard decides, and determinedly imagines a better future for himself.
“The Sounds of Love”
When her flute is stolen, Norma Lucero reasons that the culprit must be Samuel Ortega, a boy she has a crush on and who seems to like her, too. She consoles herself with her budding love affair through a day of pesky friends, canceled band practice, homework, and an elusive Samuel. The next day Norma corners Samuel only to find out that he didn’t take her flute and he doesn’t like her. Crushed, she has to spend band practice parading empty-handed up and down the schoolyard. Comforted slightly by a last minute flute from the school lost and found, and a reassuring girl talk with her mother, Norma ends up in parade formation next to a boy from another middle school. He’s cute, and plays and marches well. They talk, share sheet music, and trill back and forth on their flutes. Norma starts to feel her heart thump, and when she spots Samuel along the parade route she just shrugs, makes a face, and turns back to her new friend. The sweet story ends on a hopeful note of new romance.
“The Sounds of the House”
After thirteen year old Maria’s mother is killed in a car accident; the house is eerily silent as each family member tries to cope with her death. Maria’s father retreats into silence; Maria takes care of her father and little sister and is trying hard to take her mother’s place. The only one making noise is six year old Angela who whines and throws temper tantrums.
Three days after the funeral, Maria hears the house creak and moan. Unable to bear the silence, Maria suspects that her mother has returned. She knows that sometimes the dead come back to their loved ones and begins to listen to every sound, every creak in the house.
The next morning, Maria prepares breakfast for Angela but doesn’t want her to drink out of their mother’s cup. However, Angela throws another tantrum, so Maria gives in. Her mother’s lipstick marks she finds on the cup frighten her. She remembers her mother’s words “Mi’ja, I will never leave you. I will always be with you,” (p. 161) and realizes that she never got to say good-bye to her.
She realizes that her mother has in fact returned. She calls her mother, asking her if she is there and pounds the table in frustration when she doesn’t get an answer. She senses that her mother is trying to tell her something but cannot figure out what. What does she want?Should I be nice to Angela? Should I take care of the house? Of Dad? (p. 165) Maria places her mouth on the lipstick marks of the coffee cup and her mother’s words come out of her: “I’m here and will never leave you, mi’ja.” Maria is terrified, but realizes that the spirit of her mother was saying a last good-bye to her girls.
“One Last Kiss”
It is the night of the junior high dance, and young Daniel Rubio has a lot on his mind. That afternoon, he has learned that his grandmother is wanted by Fresno police for writing bad checks. As he gets ready for the dance, his thoughts keep turning to her: Why did she, of all people, write bad checks? After all, she appeared to be a successful cosmetics salesperson. After receiving a mysterious phone call from her—there is a discussion of Christmas, of all things—Daniel heads to the dance with a head full of questions. And doubts about himself. His grandmother’s trouble is just one incident that Daniel dwells upon that sends him into downward spiral of self-loathing and pity. He also recounts his father’s absence; he has left Daniel’s mother for another woman, with whom he has a child, “that ugly mocoso baby!”
So, as Daniel arrives at the dance, with his friend Vince, he is not exactly in the type of mood in which someone would normally be for a festive evening. Daniel envies Vince, who has the looks and charm to attract girls. Daniel, meanwhile, views himself as the opposite. Soon, he decides to leave the dance. But once outside, in the dark, Daniel feels a hand on his arm. A girl. She promptly kisses him. It is a “case of mistaken identity.” As soon as Daniel reveals who he really is, the girl screams and runs back to the dance. It’s the first time he has ever kissed a girl. But after a futile attempt to find her inside the dance hall, to see who she really is, he decides to head home to confront his family’s problems. His grandmother is now back home with Daniel’s mother, ready to be arrested. As the police arrive to take his grandmother away, Daniel retires to his bedroom to ponder what has really happened to him that evening and why that one kiss, not his grandmother’s arrest, would haunt his memory from then on.
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