One of the things that I love about School Library Journal's Battle of the Books is that I've read things that I would not have read otherwise. When I heard about Trash, it did not seem like my kind of book - I am not always an enthusiastic reader of books with teenage boy protagonists. I rarely connect with teenage boy characters, so it has to take some special characters for me to get past that. But this book was different from the first page.
Raphael and Gardo are sorting trash, on the top of a large mountain of refuse in a landfill. Suddenly something slips out of a bag - a wallet with ID, a key and a substantial amount of cash. To Raphael and Gardo, who live in the landfill in a sort of scrabbling, hand-to-mouth existence, the cash is most important. But when the police come looking for that same wallet, Raphael and Gardo know they have unearthed something much more valuable than they first thought.
They enlist one other boy, a loner known as Rat, to keep their secret. These boys have already kept the wallet a secret from their neighbors because of the amount of cash. Raphael and Gardo know that cash makes them vulnerable in their dumpster society. They could be robbed or killed over it. In their neighborhood (called Behala), people never have any money at all - they mostly use recyclables or found trash to barter for food and supplies. This is a bleak, hopeless society. The adults in Behala are just barely surviving. Raphael, Gardo and Rat, however, are still young enough to have a slim glimmer of hope. And that is enough to allow them to set off on a quest to solve the mystery behind the wallet.
Mulligan has created an incredible story. These boys have nothing - no money, little family, even less education. And yet they are resilient, clever, street-smart. The three are able to get information because they have always lived by their wits, so they are observant and have perfected being invisible to the adults around them. Perhaps only this particular group of boys would have this combination of daring and smarts that allows them to solve this mystery. Most teen boys wouldn't be curious about the rest of the contents of the wallet, probably discarding them while keeping the cash. Or they might have bowed to authority and handed over the wallet to the police when they came looking for it.
This is an adventure story at heart, but it is combined with the mystery that unfolds in front of the boys. At times, the action is heart-stopping - will the boys be caught by the police before they uncover a mystery that hints at political corruption? Mulligan keeps the tension ratcheted up at an unendurable level, and you wonder how these poor, uneducated boys can possibly survive.
One other unique thing about Mulligan's novel is the voices - each of the boys have chapters told through their eyes, and they all have very different ways of looking at this situation. They all see each other's strengths and weaknesses, and work together as a seamless partnership. It is truly miraculous that these boys have the wherewithal to not only survive their bleak upbringings but to hold out hope for a better life.
Trash. Andy Mulligan. David Fickling Books: Random House, 2010.