Ellis, Deborah. 2006. I Am A Taxi. Toronto, Ontario: Groundwood Books. ISBN 9780888997357.
B. Plot Summary
San Sebastian Woman's Prison in Cochabamba, Bolivia is not the ideal home, but it is where Diego Juarez must live after his parents are falsely accused of smuggling drugs. To help support his family, Diego works as a 'taxi', running errands for other prisoners to the outside of the prison. When an opportunity comes for a different life, Diego takes the challenge which changes his life for the worse.
C. Critical Analysis
I Am A Taxi gives descriptions of two frightening worlds. The women's prison is aptly described with its noise, bare walls, dingy light bulbs, and no fresh air. The description of the Bolivian jungle with its thick growth of trees and scary animals and insects is distinctly uncomfortable, especially when one character tells Diego, "Remember, lad, there's nothing in this jungle that you can't eat, or that won't eat you."
Authenticity is given with the language and description of various foods and common elements of daily life. Ellis provides a glossary at the end of the novel even while giving descriptions of some words within the writing. Chupe is described as "...thick with grains and tomatoes...[and] bits of meat among the potatoes..."
Bolivian traditions are not explained in the novel as it focuses on life in the prison and life in the jungle creating cocaine.
I Am A Taxi is an unsettling and unnerving novel in how it shows a young boy whose life has been destroyed by an illegal substance highly prized for its ability to make one forget.
Ellis adds an author's note at the end of the novel explaining the drug trafficking trade in Bolivia and attempts to put an end to it.
D. Review Excerpts
School Library Journal: Ellis's novel attempts to expose the strains that cocaine production and trade and the U.S War on Drugs have placed on Bolivians. Diego's parents have been wrongfully incarcerated for drug smuggling. While they serve their 16-year sentences, the 12-year-old, who would otherwise be homeless, lives in the women's prison with his mother and younger sister. He earns money as a taxi, running errands in the city for the prisoners. One day his friend convinces him that they can make easier money working for men who turn out to be involved in cocaine manufacturing. The boys are enslaved in the jungle, Diego's friend dies, and Diego barely escapes with his life. This harrowing part of the narrative is somewhat rushed and is less convincing than the rest. Nonetheless, because of its unusual setting and subject matter, and Ellis's efforts to explicate complex social, political, and economic issues, this book should find a place in larger collections.–Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Public Library, NY.
Booklist: Diego, 12, lives in prison in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, stuck there with his parents, who have been falsely arrested for smuggling drugs. He attends school and works as a "taxi," running errands for the inmates in the great street market. Then his friend, Mando, persuades him to make big money, and the boys find themselves stomping coca leaves in cocaine pits in the jungle, with local gangsters and a smooth boss who supplies "hungry noses" in America. Readers will be caught up by the nonstop action in the prison, and also in the jungle survival adventure, where escape is tempered by the specter of death. The connection between medicinal coca leaves, sacred to the indigenous people, and their exploitation by the global drug runners is not entirely clear, but, as in The Breadwinner (2001) and many of her previous books, Ellis tells a bold story of contemporary kids in crisis and brutally exploited far away. Hazel Rochman.
Older teens could research cocaine and its consequences and investigate US government programs to stop the trafficking of illegal drugs and the abuse of children being made to create the drugs.
A sequel from Deborah Ellis might interest students who found Diego's story moving: Sacred Leaf ISBN 9780888997517.