Read Date: September 27, 2018
A captivating, gorgeous novel about humanity and belonging, The Book of Unknown Americans illustrates the raw aspects of leaving home for new opportunity. Henriquez depicts heartbreaking desperation and buoying optimism and everything in between.
After their daughter Maribel suffers a traumatic brain injury, Alma and Arturo Rivera leave their settled, comfortable, happy lives in Mexico for Delaware, home to the only place that can help Maribel heal. Desperate to get their daughter back after her accident, they wait and wait for their papers to be approved until they’re finally able to begin the grueling, fifty-hour journey to a new home. They are met with a shabby apartment, a menial job far below Arturo’s capability and qualification, and foreign people with foreign stores and foreign resources.
As they learn of the other Hispanic inhabitants of their building, the tenants become family to the Riveras. Their closest friends appear in the form of Celia and Rafael Toro, the neighbors with a son, Mayor, who is close to Maribel’s age. A teenage love blossoms between Mayor, an outcast at school who lives in the shadow of his essentially perfect older brother, and Maribel.
Interwoven into the story of Maribel and Mayor’s romance spins not only the poignantly depicted stories of the Toros and Riveras working tremendously to make ends meet and fully lay claim on their American identities, but also the testimonies of the building’s other tenants. The reader is introduced to each individual and his/her reasons for coming to America, what the journey was like, how they adapted after arriving, etc. These gems mingled into the larger artwork are thought-provoking, acting as a sort of Greek chorus around the central action and providing the framework for what the Riveras life could unfold to be. More importantly– and perhaps furthering the novel’s true mission– they are snapshots of what is happening in our country. They are representatives of the immigrant experience and they charge the reader to reflect upon his/her reception and perception of the Hispanic population.
The Book of Unknown Americans is suspenseful and intimate and an absolute must-read. Find it here or at your local library!