Monday, October 17, 2016

The Book of Unknown Americans - Cristina Henríquez

The Book of Unknown Americans
Title: The Book of Unknown Americans
Author: Cristina Henríquez
Publication Date: 2014
Pages: 286
Genre: Fiction
How I Found It: I can't remember
Date Completed: 9/15/16

Summary: Upon moving to Delaware so their daughter Maribel can attend a special education school, the Riveras are faced with a much different world than their Mexican home. Living alongside them are Hispanic immigrants from all across Central and South America, each facing their own challenges in their new home.

What I Thought: As our country is deep into a divisive debate on immigration leading up to this election, I cannot think of a better time to read this book. As we bandy about rhetoric and policy arguments about immigration, it becomes easy to forget the real lives that hang in the balance. Henríquez is doing her best to help us remember.

The book centers around the Riveras, a family from Mexico who arrive in Delaware anticipating a better education for their daughter, Maribel. Maribel has recently suffered brain damage and the educational options available to her in Mexico paled in comparison to possibilities in the States. And so, Alma and Arturo pick up and move the family across a continent with hopes of healing for both Maribel and their hearts. They find themselves in an apartment complex largely populated with other Hispanic immigrants. 

Henríquez writes each chapter from a different perspective. She returns frequently to Alma, Maribel's mother, who serves as something of a main character. Mayor, the son of Panamanian immigrants who befriend the Riveras, also narrates much of the story. Interspersed are the stories of peripheral characters, some of whom make only the briefest of appearances in the main story line. These interjected chapter function as short stories of immigration, offering Henríquez the chance to further humanize the immigrant population to her readers.

Reading about the Riveras really opened my eyes to some of the realities of immigrant life. It's so easy to loose sight of how hard it is to start over in a new country, particularly when you don't know the language. We so easily demonize these people, accusing them of taking what is ours, forgetting that our families were once new here as well. The practicalities of learning life in a new culture with a new language are so much harder than we realize. Having to speak with your child's school through an interpreter, even when your only concern is a late bus, or trying to identify packaged foods in the grocery store when you are used to a different cultural cuisine and cannot read the copy...these are details we simply don't think about and for which I suddenly have a new appreciation. 

More than anything, Henríquez paints her characters as very sympathetic. Not perfect, but with the same hopes, dreams, and emotions as any human. Henríquez does tantalize for a bit with the question of how Maribel came to need special education, but most of the plot sticks to the basic story of daily life. I have seen other reviews complaining the book is too simplistic. I could not disagree more. I think the straightforward nature of the plot leaves a greater canvas on which the characters' humanity can shine. The end is heart-wrenching not only because of the events which take place, but also because you have come to know Alma and others so intimately that you empathize easily with them. 

I know immigration in our country is complex and there is plenty of room for reform in the system. Regardless of where you stand on the political system, I think remembering the humanity behind it all is vital. This book will certainly help you do that. 

Rating: ★★★★☆
Will I Re-Read: Probably not, but I'll be recommending it to others.
If You Liked This, Try: The Golden Son / My Mother's Funeral / The Help

A Reduced Review: Henríquez gives an important look at what life is like for immigrants; her characters jump off the page with the resonance and reality of their stories.

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