This book is engaging and should hold the attention of young teens.
Set in rural Guatemala in the 1980s, the first chapter opens with the massacre of an entire village of indigenous people. Our main character/narrator and his 4-year-old sister are the only survivors. While it is realistic to have them escape, I'm not sure how realistic it is to think a 12-year-old and his 4-year-old sister could then sail from Guatemala to Florida. In the author's defense, he uses some flashback scenes to explain the uniqueness of the boat. (The 12-year-old has at least some experience on the boat, and it was actually designed for long-distance ocean sailing, even though it was small.) And as the story unfolds, the author also includes an adult who travels with them for the first day and coaches the 12-year-old in more sailing skills. Still, it's quite a reach to think this would actually happen.
It is difficult to find stories of war refugees that are appropriate for young adolescents. Most attempts either whitewash the suffering (probably to keep it less graphic) or they tell far too many details (probably to be true to actual events). I find both extremes to be problematic. For my classroom, I feel this book has a good balance of the two.
Twenty-seven years ago, I was working with Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees. I guarantee the author is sparing us from major horrific details in describing the event. In my opinion, the author presents sufficient information about the massacre to help students understand the severity of the situation without the unnecessary sensational details. And while the massacre was by Guatemalan soldiers, there is certainly no glorification of the rebels whose earlier visit to the village probably led to the massacre.
I'm not sure why the entire book - written from the perspective of the 12-year-old boy - is written with no contractions. It sounds rather stilted at times. I don't know 12-year-olds (from the U.S. or from Guatemala) who speak so formally! I found that a bit annoying.
In general, I would not recommend this book for children who are younger than 11 or 12, and would not recommend it for students who are extremely sensitive to accounts of violence. And the fact that this novel is based on actual violent events makes the violent images more upsetting for some readers.
Overall, the story is suspenseful, adventurous, and ends in a hopeful way. Although the U.S. government supported (with training, supplies, and money) the Guatemalan military during this late period of the Cold War, Guatemala has thankfully returned to a more peaceful existence now. In the epilogue, the author states that he hopes future generations can learn from stories like this and not be so quick to support military actions in complicated situations.