“from what we cannot hold the stars are made”:
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
“Do you think we’ll ever discover all the secrets of the universe?” (231)
Ari asks this as he and his friends, Susie and Gina, sit in the bed of his truck and look up at all the stars. It is Ari’s favorite thing to do – to drive out to the desert at night in his truck so he can watch the stars.
It starts one summer (for some reason, things always start for Ari in the summer) when Ari’s mother is at him again about how “he doesn’t have any friends”. Even though she isn’t wrong, Ari still resents her for saying it. And on that hottest day of summer, he decides he will go to the pool to spend his time. That’s when Ari (Aristotle) meets Dante, and also when, for Ari, “Dante bec[omes] one more mystery in a universe full of mysteries” (19).
One day, Ari comes down with the flu. While he is bedridden, Dante comes to keep him company. Dante gives Ari a book of poems so he can read while Dante sketches him with charcoal on his drawing pad. Ari falls asleep, and when he wakes up, Dante is gone along with his drawing of Ari, but there is a drawing of Ari’s rocking chair that he left behind. In this drawing, Ari notices how Dante has captured the “afternoon light streaming into the room,” and “the way the shadows fell on the chair and gave it depth and made it appear as if it was something more than an inanimate object” (73). But mostly, he notices how Dante has captured something “sad and solitary” about the chair, and he wonders if this is how Dante sees the world, or if this is how he sees Ari’s world. As an Asian American female, I do not share a lot of similarities with either Ari or Dante, and yet when Ari looks at the picture of the chair and tries to figure out whose world Dante has drawn, I find myself thinking that Dante may have drawn a little bit of each of our – the reader’s – world in that picture, too.
One day, a group of boys shoot BB guns at a bird in a tree, and after Ari manages to scare them away, he notices Dante staring at the dead bird on the ground, with tears running down his face. Ari wonders why it is that “…some guys had tears in them and some had no tears at all?” (55). To be honest, Ari did not feel much for the bird. Yes, it was sad that the innocent bird was killed by stupid boys, but in the end, Ari felt that it was only a bird. However, Dante is heartbroken, and as usual, his face acts as a window to his feelings. On his way home, Ari thinks that, “Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness…How beautiful was that?” (55).
To be honest, Ari has a lot going on in his life. His brother is in prison, and everyone acts as though doesn’t exist, even though Ari has dreams of his brother. His father, after coming back from the Vietnam War, has been unreachable, choosing not to share his memories or his haunting dreams with his son. Everyday, Ari misses him more. On top of it all, Ari is a teenager, and he is trying to figure out who he is. And Ari is scared of Dante, because Dante means a lot more to Ari than he would like to admit.
Nevertheless, from his journey with Dante, Ari learns that “One of the secrets of the universe was that our instincts were sometimes stronger than our minds” (261) and that “Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer morning could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder” (261). If your friend was standing in the middle of the road, and you saw a car on the other side coming full-speed at them, would you throw yourself at your friend to save them?
That day, when Dante had given him the book of poems by William Carlos Williams, Ari, flushed with embarrassment and conscious of Dante’s focus on him, had read a line from the book: “from what we cannot hold the stars are made.” (73), and even though he had not understood what it meant, he had thought it was beautiful.
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Kindle Edition.