The novel takes place some time in the future. Because of political unrest and heated debates over issues like immigration, gay rights, euthanasia, gun control, capital punishment, school prayer, and same-sex marriage, the United States has been split into two republics along the 38th latitude. The southern republic is violent, dogmatic and corrupted, while the northern republic is more peaceful, flexible and compassionate.
Our protagonists, Diego and Adriana Sanchez, are a couple deeply in love. They live in the southern republic. However, this isn’t their main problem: Adriana is dying of terminal cancer and the pain is getting unbearable, but one of the south’s ‘secret’ policies is not to waste pain medication on terminally-ill patients. Euthanasia is also out of the question, as it is not permitted in the south. In order for Adriana to have a serene, pain-free death, they must find a way to get to the north.
Through Adriana’s oncologist, they learn about Arnold Cutbirth, a roguish brute whose ‘job’ is to guide people across the border for exorbitant sums of money. Thus, Diego and Adriana use their life savings to pay for the trip. The story starts at the heart of the conflict, with Diego and Adriana meeting Cutbirth and getting ready for their journey. They soon find out that they’re not the only ones in the group. Travelling with our protagonists is an interesting array of characters: a gay couple, a young mother and her ten-year old girl, and a religious zealot, among a few others. Together, propelled by their own individual goals and guided by cruel and merciless Cutbirth, they must endure all kinds of hardships and dangers in their quest for freedom and a better life.
Latitude 38 is skilfully plotted. From the beginning, Hutchison pulled me into the story with lots of action and dialogue. Exposition and description are kept at a minimum, so the pace is quick. The love between Diego and Adriana, as well as her sad situation are compelling without being melodramatic. Needless to say, they’re very sympathetic characters and, because of this, it was gripping watching their behaviour and reactions as they were pushed to the limit due to their circumstances. Cutbirth is a fascinating character—in fact, for me he is the most fascinating character in the novel. He’s a bad seed, but there’s something about him that makes you wonder that, had he been born in the right setting under different circumstances, he would be a very different person. There’s a subtle transformation in him as the story develops, and this was engrossing to watch. Also interesting is the dynamic interaction between all the different characters as they try to get along in spite of their own instinct to survive.
Though there’s lots of adventure in Latitude 38, this isn’t your typical adventure novel. It is a realistic story with elements of adventure and dystopia. It is a tale of survival filled with crisp dialogue, mounting tension and a heart-breaking climax. While some people might hate the ending and others might love it, one thing is for sure: few will be able to stay impartial or indifferent toward it. This is one of those stories that will stay with you long after having read it.