I am a Taxi
Groundwood Books, 2006.
Ages 11 - adult
There are several moments in this true-to-life thriller when the reader is willing something to happen – varying from the Angel Gabriel to a helicopter: but this is no fairy-tale and Deborah Ellis, the award-winning author of The Breadwinner Trilogy, is not pulling any punches. We encounter Diego and his Mamá at the opening so the word ‘cell’ in the second line immediately makes the reader sit up and take notice. Are we really talking about a prison cell here? Yes, indeed: a cell in San Sebastián Women’s Prison in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where twelve-year-old Diego has already lived with his mother for nearly four years, as well as his three-year-old sister, Corina, who has never known any other form of existence. His father is held in the men’s prison across the square and Diego has a certain amount of freedom to move between the two. His parents were sentenced to seventeen years imprisonment for drug-smuggling when drugs were found taped under the seats of a bus they happened to be travelling in.
Diego’s whole life revolves around making enough money to make prison at least tolerable, but it is a huge burden on his young shoulders. He is a taxi: in other words, he runs errands in the town for the prisoners. He is a good, reliable taxi and he is justifiably proud of his work.
Diego is street-wise and intelligent, and immensely likeable, with a streak of integrity which serves him well not only in his taxi business, but also when things go horribly wrong, as they inevitably do. He himself states on more than one occasion that the only way to make big money in Bolivia is with drugs and he wants nothing to do with it. Reading about prison life is shocking and it is appalling to think of children being caught up in it. When a train of events means that the precarious equilibrium of Diego’s existence is overbalanced and he is banned from being a taxi, he is desperate and finally gives in to his friend Mando’s persuasion to take a job out of town for ‘just a couple of weeks’. From our safe vantage point, we almost beg Diego not to go with Mando – we know that it can only lead to trouble; but we are forced to put ourselves into the ‘reality’ of his situation and ask: what other ways out are there?
At this point the book, already quick-paced, steps up a gear. As Diego knows in his heart of hearts, the job involves drugs. He, Mando and three other boys, all glue sniffers picked up from the park in Cochabamba, have to stomp the coca in its initial stage of the process to become cocaine. They themselves are drugged to make them work more frenetically; the drugs help ease the exhaustion and dull the pain from the acid solution added to the leaves, but only temporarily. There is no sign of any payment and two weeks have long been and gone. The men ‘employing’ them are frightening bullies; their boss, the pseudo-anonymous American, Smith is psychotic and terrifyingly well versed in jungle craft. The jungle itself is hostile. Diego has to escape. Ellis writes impellingly and by the time we get to the last four chapters, we have a sick feeling in the pit of our stomach and it is impossible to put the book down.
I Am a Taxi is a winner all round. As well as being a great read, it packs in a store of information about Bolivia and the exploitation of children in the drug-trade, and raises polemics about the growth of the coca plant. And this is not the end of the story – but we will have to wait until next year to read its sequel, Sacred Leaf.