Like last year’s critically acclaimed Marcelo in the Real World, Francisco X. Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is the story of a teen faced with difficult choices before the start of a new school year. Kicked out of his foster home and recently orphaned, 17-year-old Pancho Sanchez has one more chance at St. Anthony’s, an orphanage in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Unable to find a construction job for the season, he becomes the aide to fellow resident Daniel Quentin, known as D.Q., who is dying from a type of brain cancer known as diffuse pontine glioma. The immediate allusions to Don Quixote give depth to the quiet steadiness of the novel.
D.Q. has another round of treatment, which he knows he can bear because it will give him one more opportunity to confess his heart to Marisol, a young worker at Casa Esperanza, his outpatient home. And he’ll even endure the two-week recovery period with the bipolar mother who turned him over to St. Anthony’s as a child—if afterwards he can be legally emancipated, allowing him to die where he chooses and to follow the tenets of his Death Warrior Manifesto, a declaration to “love life at all times and in all circumstances.” (“‘Life Warrior’ is probably more accurate because the manifesto is about life,” admits D.Q., “but ‘Death Warrior’ is more mysterious-sounding.”)
Their journey out of town provides the angry, depressed Pancho with a way to avenge the death of his mentally challenged older sister after the police, claiming she died of natural causes, filed away the case. He is also a boxing fan, and the author takes great care jabbing boxing imagery into the Hispanic teen’s own fight for life. Like his literary predecessor, Pancho’s observations of D.Q. illuminate his friend’s idealism and his attempts to claim love in spite of the disease attacking his body and mind. In an unflinching ending, Pancho must decide between carrying out a certain death sentence or finding faith and his place in humanity—and becoming a true Death Warrior.
Angela Leeper is a librarian at the University of Richmond.