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Sisters in Search of the American Dream : Two bilingual books offer a practical and poetic look at Latina life : A young adult novel shows that sisterhood under the skin can bridge any cultural difference : SISTERS/HERMANAS, <i> By Gary Paulsen (Harcourt Brace: $10.95; 144 pp.)</i>

<i> Yvonne V. Sapia is a Puerto Rican American who received the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize for "Valentino's Hair.</i> "

It is often said that each of us has an identical twin somewhere on this planet. Building on this premise, three-time Newbery Honor recipient Gary Paulsen introduces us to Rosa and Traci, 14-year-olds who are unrelated--but “sisters” nonetheless.

Packaged compactly and handsomely and told in English and Spanish (the Spanish translation is by Gloria de Aragon Andujar), “Sisters/Hermanas” tells Rosa and Traci’s individual stories and dramatically concludes when these two young lives intersect at a nearby mall where they experience a sudden and terrifying moment of recognition.

Rosa and Traci have profound differences. The dark-haired Rosa is an illegal immigrant from Mexico City. Blond-haired, American-born Traci lives “as if her whole life was written as a fairy tale.” Raised to believe nothing is ever bad, nothing is ever impossible, nothing is ever ugly, Traci has occasional glimmers of reality when she realizes “somewhere it isn’t perfect.”

Rosa has made her way into “the strange country, the new country” and finally into a Texas city, catching a car ride with a stranger that lasts “a day and most of the night.” After attempting to obtain work that Jesus would approve of, Rosa begins to sell herself on the busy streets of Texas. The privileged Traci is in the final stage of preparing for a cheerleading tryout at her high school.

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Rosa lives at the Prairie Deluxe Motor Hotel. There, her most cherished possession is a plastic statue of “Mary in a blue robe and the Baby Jesus all pink wrapped in a white cloth.” And each morning Rosa prays to the statue: “Blessed Virgin bring my mother peace and great riches” ( “Santisima Virgen traele paz a mi madre y grandes riquezas” ) . . . . “Blessed Virgin see me and forgive me and help me to be a model in the glamour magazines” (“ Santisima Virgen mirame y perdoname y ayudame a ser modelo en las revistas de glamour” ) . Unlike Rosa, who is geographically separated from her mother, Traci is dominated by an overbearing mother whose first husband left “a smudge every time he touched her” and who drives Traci hard “To marry money. To have a wonderful, successful life with a fancy home and drive a Mercedes and have servants and travel all over the world--to the clean places, of course, not the dirty ones, none of the messy places like India or Africa or China or South America.” Unable to achieve her own youthful dreams, Traci’s mother is determined to fulfill those dreams through her daughter.

But both young women are driven by American dreams: success, youth, beauty, wealth, frame, perfection. Thus, “Sisters/Hermanas” emerges as a modern mythological tale about two young women on the verge of fully accepting the responsibility of living in an imperfect world where broken dreams are indigenous to the landscape. Although from different cultures and social standing, Rosa and Traci are ensnared by dreams of living lives deemed socially sanctioned for women and trapped in lives in which beauty and youth are pricey commodities, “according to the book’s cover.

Brief, ambitious and told quite poetically, Andujar’s Spanish translation is as equally powerful as Paulsen’s English text. Intended for readers ages 12 and up, however, the ambiguity of the climax may prove to be a challenge to some readers, for the story intensifies only to leave the reader to decide the eventual destinies of Rosa and Traci, two women, two sisters, “dos hermanas.”

It is an imperfect world indeed.

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