By Elizabeth Wroten
YA Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
On 23, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel’s recovery-the piece of the American Dream on which they’ve pinned all their hopes-will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles. At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she’s sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America. Peopled with deeply sympathetic characters, this poignant yet unsentimental tale of young love tells a riveting story of unflinching honesty and humanity that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be an American. An instant classic is born.
I think technically this is an adult book. A good chunk of the narrative centers around adults and one of the major themes is the struggle of being a parent and wanting to protect your child even though you often can’t. However I think for older YA it’s a great foray into adult literature and does feature a teenage girl and boy very prominently.
In part, this was such a sweet story. You meet all these characters that live in a small dingy apartment building and hear their stories of why and how they came to the US. All have come for a better life and, while they may not have found great wealth, many of them are happy. Everyone is poor, but they manage to get by and support their families. You can’t help but feel for these people and come to care about them. The book certainly could have become overwrought trying to win your sympathy for poor immigrants, but it never felt disingenuous or contrived.
Alma and her husband (whose name is escaping me) have come to the US because Maribel, their daughter, has suffered a fall and a traumatic brain injury. Here they can get her into a good school that can help her recover and cope with her condition. Maribel is very beautiful, but her mind is not quite all there (although this begins to change as the story goes on). When they arrive Maribel is befriended by Mayor, a boy from downstairs. In the small moments he gets to know her and comes to love her for more than her beauty. While Alma is busy struggling to overcome language and cultural barriers and worrying over Maribel, Mayor comes to see her for herself and appreciate the girl she is post-accident- something Alma really struggles with.
There is of course strife, mostly inflicted by parents who are just trying to protect their kids. Maribel is being watched by some creep in the neighborhood and after an incident where he touches her, Alma tries to keep Maribel even closer. This interferes with her friendship with Mayor and gives it a bit of a Romeo and Juliet feel. There is also sadness in the book, it is a story about immigrants who are just barely making it in America. But this is tempered with the stories of the people in Alma’s apartment block and Maribel and Mayor’s love story.
The book also does a wonderful job highlighting that all immigrants are not the same. Some came here as children, others came here as adults. Some have been in trouble with the law, others have always been on the straight and narrow. Some had good jobs and opportunities back home while others were forced to leave because of political conflict or because of a lack of options. Some have struggled others have maintained a certain level of quality of life all along. Some have found love, others have not. Some come from Mexico, while some come from various parts of Central America. They are as varied in their stories as the white middle class. It’s a refreshing glimpse into a community that often gets painted with a broad brush by the media and politicians.
I feel like I don’t know exactly what to say about the book. It was just so enjoyable despite the sad parts. It felt like peeking into cars as you drive along and realizing people have lives separate from yours and wondering they are going.