MILLY KAUFMAN IS an ordinary American teenager living in Vermont—until she meets Pablo, a new student at her high school. His exotic accent, strange fashion sense, and intense interest in Milly force her to confront her identity as an adopted child from Pablo’s native country. As their relationship grows, Milly decides to undertake a courageous journey to her homeland and along the way discovers the story of her birth is intertwined with the story of a country recovering from a brutal history.
Beautifully written by reknowned author Julia Alvarez, Finding Miracles examines the emotional complexity of familial relationships and the miracles of everyday life.
About the Author
Julia Alvarez has written three other books for young readers, The Secret Footprints, a picture book; How Tía Lola Came to (Visit) Stay, a middle-grade novel; and Before We Were Free, a young adult novel. She is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College and lives in Vermont.
Date of Birth:March 27, 1950
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Middlebury College, 1971; M.F.A., Syracuse University, 1975
Read an Excerpt
I took the class where we wrote stories with Ms. Morris. It was a three-week elective we could do on the side with regular English class. I did it because, to be truthful, I needed the extra credit. I've always had big problems with writing, which I'm not going to go into here. I knew my English grade, a C, was rapidly gyrating into a D. So I signed up.
"Stories are how we put the pieces of our lives together," Ms. Morris told us that first class. The way she talked, it was like stories could save your life. She was like a fanatic of literature, Ms. Morris. A lot of kids didn't like her for that. But secretly, I admired her. She had something worth giving her life to. Except for saving my mom and dad and sister, Kate, and brother, Nate, and best friend, Em, and a few other people from a burning building, I didn't have anything I could get that worked up about.
"Unless we put the pieces together we can get lost." Ms. Morris sighed like she'd been there, done that. Ms. Morris wasn't exactly old, maybe about Mom and Dad's age. But with her wild, frizzy hair and her scarves and eye makeup, she seemed younger. She lived an hour away near the state university and drove a red pickup. Occasionally, she referred to her partner, and sometimes to her kid, and once to an ex-husband. It was hard to put all the pieces of her life together.
Ms. Morris had this exercise where we had to jot down a couple of details about ourselves. Then we had to write a story based on them.
"Nothing big," she said to encourage us. "But they do have to be details that reveal something about your real self."
"Huh?" a bunch of the guys in the back row grunted.
"Here's what I mean," Ms. Morris said, reading from her list. She always tried out the exercises she gave us. "The morning I was born, I had to be turned around three times. Headed in the wrong direction, I guess." She looked up and grinned, sort of proud of herself. "Okay, here's another one. When I was twelve, an X-ray discovered that I had extra 'wing bones' on my shoulders." Ms. Morris spread her arms as if she was ready to fly away.
The huh guys all shot a glance at each other like here we are in the Twilight Zone.
"So, class, a detail or two to convey the real you! Actually, this is a great exercise in self-knowledge!"
We all groaned. It was kind of mandatory when a teacher was this kindergarten-perky about an assignment.
I sat at my desk wondering what to write. My hands were itching already with this rash I always get. Since nothing else was coming, I decided to jot that down. But what came out was, "I have this allergy where my hands get red and itchy when my real self's trying to tell me something." For my second detail, I found myself writing, "My parents have a box in their bedroom we've only opened once. I think of it as The Box."
Ms. Morris was coming down the rows, checking on our progress. "That's great!" she whispered when she read over my paper. Now my face, along with my hands, turned red. "You could tell an interesting story with just those two facts!"
"I made them up," I said a little too quickly. Oh yeah? All she had to do was look at my hands.
"Then write a story about a character for whom those two facts are true," Ms. Morris shot back. You couldn't get around her enthusiasm, no way.
I felt relieved when music sounded over the loudspeaker for the end of the period. That's a telling detail about our school. Instead of bells, we get music, anything from classical to "Rock-a-bye, Baby" to rock. I guess we're free spirits in Vermont. Bells are too uptight for us.
I ended up writing some lame, futuristic story about this girl alien whose memory chips are kept in a box that she can't open because her hands need rebooting. Some idea from a late-night movie Em and I had seen on TV at her house, where her parents have a dish and get all the weird channels.
I could tell Ms. Morris was disappointed that I didn't write about my own life. And though my hands kept breaking out in rashes, trying to tell me Milly! It's time!, I wasn't ready yet to open my box of secrets.
But sometimes, like with my allergies, it takes an outside irritant to make you react. My outside "irritant" showed up the next day in Mr. Barstow's class.
Reading Group Guide
1. In the novel’s opening chapter, Milly claims to be allergic to herself. What does she mean by this? Give some examples of moments when this “allergic reaction” occurs and explain what causes it?
2. Early in the novel, Milly confesses, “The point is: I totally pass as 100 percent American, and as un-PC as this is going to sound, I’m really glad” (p. 12). Why do you think Milly is so afraid to reveal that she’s adopted? How would you react to such news from a classmate?
3. When the Kaufmans go to the Bolivars’ apartment to watch the election results, Pablo is noticeably troubled, leading Milly to comment that she’s never seen anyone her own age so distraught over politics. The most important election in her life so far is the one for Ralston’s student government. Do you feel similarly shielded from political worries? Do you follow elections, locally, nationally, or globally? Are there political issues that affect your daily life?
4. In chapter five, Happy reveals to Milly that she, too, is a kind of orphan. What does she mean by this? Is Happy making a valid comparison?
5. During her stay with the Bolivars in her birth country, Milly gets a vision of family life–especially in terms of extended family–that is very different from her own. The easy affection of Tía Dulce, for example, is a far cry from Happy’s reserve. What other differences do you notice in the family routines and attitudes?
6. Why is Kate so negative about Milly’s trip with the Bolivars? Are her concerns justified?
7. The importance of names–both the ones we are given and the ones we choose–is central to the novel. How is this theme reflected in the stories of both Milly and Happy?
8. At one point, Pablo tells Milly, “Some say let us forget the past and build the future. Others say we cannot build the future without knowing the past.” Kate– and, to some degree, Milly’s parents–seems to advocate the former strategy, but Milly isn’t convinced. What do you think? Is it always better to know the historical truth, or does a focus on the past keep us from moving forward? Does Milly find what she’s looking for in her birth country? Is it worth the worry it causes her family in Vermont?
9. What do you think Doña Gloria means when she tells Milly and Pablo that she’s counting on them to “bring more light”? Do they fulfill this request? How?