Thursday, June 09, 2016

Fiction Review: The Book of Unknown Americans

I was interested in reading The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez when I first read its plot synopsis but even more eager to read it when I heard it was actually set here in Delaware, where we live. It’s the second smallest state in the nation (and few people know where it is), so it’s rare for books to be set here. Last spring, I had the honor of meeting Cristina at Booktopia VT and talking to her about our shared state. This enticing novel finally made its way to the top of my overflowing TBR stacks, and I thoroughly enjoyed the heartfelt, moving drama set in an immigrant community, as did all the members of my book group.

As the book opens, Alma Rivera, her husband, Arturo, and their teen daughter, Maribel, have just left everything and everyone they know behind in Mexico and traveled 30 hours in a pickup truck from the border to arrive in Delaware. Arturo’s new job waits for them, just over the border in Pennsylvania. In Mexico, Arturo ran his own very successful construction company, but here in the U.S., he will be laboring 10 hours a day on his feet in a pitch-dark, dank mushroom farm. The family felt they had no choice because Maribel had suffered a brain injury from an accident, and the options for her in Mexico were limited. So, they traveled thousands of miles to enroll her in a special school that they hope can help her to recover some of her brain function.

The tiny, run-down apartment they move into is a far cry from their beautiful home in Mexico, but they try to settle in to their new lives. They gradually meet their neighbors in the apartment complex, all Spanish-speaking immigrants themselves. The Toro family is especially welcoming, and their teen son, Major, feels an immediate connection to Maribel, despite her limited ability to communicate. Bullied at school and feeling like an outsider himself, he sees a kindred spirit in Maribel.

Although the Riveras and the Toros are the main characters in this novel and most chapters are narrated by a member of those two families, along the way, we also get the stories of other immigrants living in the apartment complex. They come from a wide variety of countries throughout Central and South America (and are understandably annoyed when they are all called “Mexicans”), and they each came to the United States for a different reason. What they all have in common, though, is wanting a better life…though few of them are better off here in the U.S. than they were in their home countries. They work in menial jobs (often very different from their chosen careers), live in the run-down apartment complex, and endure terrible prejudice.

In this way, Henriquez tells the story of two families – and specifically of the love between two misfit teenagers – but she also tells the story of a broad and diverse group of people who have all been typecast in their new lives in America. There are stories full of hope, stories full of tragedy, and everything in between. The one bright spot in most of their lives is the community – the family – they have built here among each other, far from their real families.

My book group overwhelmingly enjoyed this novel, and our discussions were far-ranging. The book works on two levels: as an intricate, well-told story of families and first love and as a rare peek into an insular community that is often misunderstood. This novel makes you both feel and think. Our discussion ran the gamut from details about the story itself to the bigger picture of immigrants in America today. The fact that it was set right here in our own town – including many recognizable landmarks and the immigrant community we see every day – made it all the more powerful and thought-provoking. This compelling story will keep you turning the pages, wanting things to work out for the characters…and it will also make you think.

286 pages, Vintage Contemporaries

Me Meeting Cristina Henriquez at Booktopia VT 2015

1 comment:

  1. Terrific review of what sounds like a really worthwhile book.

    >a rare peek into an insular community that is often misunderstood

    I like that--I would really like to understand more about the current immigrant experience.