In the 1990s and 2000s, Guatemala was one of the biggest sources of international adoptions. In 2007, the Central American country of 13 million sent nearly 5,000 of its children to be adopted by U.S. families, 1 percent of all babies born there that year.
Unfortunately, Guatemala's adoption system was rife with corruption, including a network of jaladoras (from jalar, to grab), who persuaded poor women to give up their children, and lawyers and other intermediaries who were reaping huge profits from the baby trade. Because of this, the impoverished nation put a stop to international adoptions in 2008.
After providing some background on Guatemalan adoption, Twin Cities author Jacob Wheeler tells the story of 14-year-old Ellie Barrett, adopted at age 7 by a Michigan family. Ellie's adoptive mother was eager for Ellie to meet her birth mother, so she took the step of hiring someone to research and locate the birth family.
Instead of engaging an experienced Guatemalan birth family researcher, the Barretts hired Wheeler, a freelance journalist, whose stated goal was "documenting a reunion between an adopted Guatemalan child and the biological mother for my book."
Wheeler's research on Guatemalan adoption in general and Ellie's situation in particular is both fascinating and prodigious. After much digging he ultimately did find Ellie's birth family -- a compelling tale -- including an older brother with whom she quickly re-formed an intense bond. His descriptions of the crushing poverty that led to Ellie's relinquishment, and the family's joy at their reunion, make this a can't-it-put-down book for any family touched by international adoption.
However, I do have one caveat: I was bothered by a journalist who made himself an integral part of the story he was covering. At the book's end Wheeler shows some self-awareness of this journalistic conflict of interest when he asks, "Was it reckless ... to facilitate a climactic and sensitive reunion between a lost girl and the mother who abandoned her?" To answer that, we may need to wait for Ellie's book.