History buffs will rejoice when they get their hands on Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s Surviving Santiago. Set in 1989, during the final months of the Pinochet regime, the novel follows Tina Aguilar while she visits her father, a man whose been forever changed by the regime, in Chile.
If the name Tina Aguilar sounds familiar, then it’s likely you’ve read or heard of Miller-Lachmann’s critically acclaimed Gringolandia, the novel that originally introduced readers to the story of the Aguilar family, set three years earlier than Surviving Santiago.
But while Surviving Santiago just hit shelves, Miller-Lachmann originally had no plans to tell Tina’s story.
“I never planned to write a companion to Gringolandia. When I began the initial draft of that novel in 1987—inspired by the refugees and exiles with whom I worked in Madison, Wisconsin—I saw it as a stand-alone.”
However, after the release and reception of her novel, Miller-Lachmann began to see things a little differently.
“The enthusiastic response to Gringolandia—from both those who had experienced that era in Chile and those who were learning about that time and place for the first time—encouraged me to return to Tina’s story. A lot of Gringolandia’s fans wanted to know how she turned out.”
Readers can certainly read Miller-Lachmann’s previous novel to get a sense of the characters, but Saving Santiago stands firmly on its own two feet, thrusting readers into a politically charged and strife-ridden story from page one. However, things didn’t start out that way.
“Earlier drafts of the novel had a more leisurely start, but I learned that major dumps of backstory and conversations set up primarily to reveal information are never good ways to draw readers in.”
As a virtually untouched era in the YA bracket, Miller-Lachmann introduces readers to the historical context of the Pinochet regime while simultaneously telling the story of a young girl and her family coping with the extent to which the dictatorship has impacted all of their lives, permanently scarring not only Tina’s father but her relationship with him.
“The dictatorship has forever damaged her father. It forced Tina from her home as a young child and took her papá — who encouraged her to face her fears and believe in herself. With him gone, she doesn’t see herself as strong or brave.”
For some YA readers, the Pinochet era in Chilean history is completely unknown. But Miller-Lachmann was able to experience it first hand.
“I was in a high school study-abroad program in Spain at the end of the Franco dictatorship and then spent three weeks in Chile at the end of the Pinochet dictatorship,” she said. “I experienced scary situations in Spain due to my difficulty understanding and following rules and in Chile due to my association with prominent opponents of the dictatorship.”
But that’s not all. She also worked with refugees, using some of their stories as inspiration and drive in her writing. “I knew people who had experienced the military coup and years of dictatorship and heard their stories,” she said.”
Her experience both first and second hand allowed her to bring an overlooked and unknown period in history to YA readers.
“Living under a repressive government is something most people in the United States haven’t experienced,” she said. Unlike World War II, the Pinochet regime isn’t a popular era in YA fiction. While this fact may hinder some from writing about the overlooked chapter in history, Miller-Lachmann rose to the occasion to bring this almost unknown era to YA readers.
“I like to be original and not follow the crowd, so a lesser-known chapter of history and a country that isn’t large or visible these days doesn’t deter me.”