This is a short novel that reads very quickly, but at a certain point, when you realize a tragedy is in the offing, it might slow you down. I dreaded finding out what was going to happen to characters whom I liked so much. The Book of Unknown Americans focuses on immigrant families living in the same apartment complex in Wilmington, Delaware. Henriquez allows each family or individual to speak for themselves in each chapter, and so the reader learns about the diversity within. They come from places like Panama, Mexico, Paraguay, Puerto Rico; they are former builders, dancers, boxers; each trying to build a life in the US right around the time of 9/11. The main action centers around two families in particular whose high school age children form a bond with each other. It is sweet and heartbreaking, and will make the reader angry at the bigotry and stupidity that holds people down and results in tragedy.
The two families at the heart of the novel are the Riveras and the Toros. The Toros have lived in the US for over a decade, having moved from Panama to escape the violence and repression of the Noriega regime. Their older son is a college soccer star on scholarship, their younger son Mayor is 16 and attends the local high school, where he is feels out of place. He is no athlete, feels no strong connection to Panama, and although he feels American, he, like so many citizens whose skin is not white, is not really accepted as an equal by his peers.
The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.
The Riveras have left behind a good life in Mexico in order to help their teenage daughter Maribel. Maribel sustained traumatic brain injury as the result of an accident, and her mother Alma is driven to do anything to bring her back, to make her the old Maribel again. Alma and Arturo choose Delaware as the best place to get Maribel into a special school, and they sacrifice everything to move to the US legally and help their daughter. Maribel is beautiful but vulnerable. Her injury has affected her speech and possibly her cognitive ability. Mayor is very attracted to her and when he realizes her disability, he tries to find ways to connect with her. The unfolding of their friendship drives the plot and allows the author to paint a picture of the racism and danger present for those who live in the apartment complex as well as the troubled relationships in the Alvarez family. Guilt and fault are themes that run through the story, in particular the guilt that Alma feels for her daughter’s disability. I think any parent of a child with a disability will be able to identify with Alma’s single-minded drive to do whatever she can for Maribel, as well as the fear that robs her of peace of mind. Alma may not have realistic expectations for Maribel, and this passage from Alma really resonated with me as a parent of two kids on the autism spectrum:
I didn’t want to accept that in order to move forward, I had to walk through it. It was so much easier just to believe there was another path that I could take around it and that at the end of that path would be the destination I wanted.
I can’t help but feel that Cristina Henriquez has some first-hand experience with disability, she writes about it so well.
Another theme in the novel is about difference and acceptance. As one of of the neighbors says,
I feel like telling them sometimes, You don’t know me, man. I’m a citizen here! But I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that. I want to be given the benefit of the doubt.
The characters of this novel remain “unknown” to most white Americans, who won’t take the time to get to know them and rid themselves of unnecessary fear. Alma says that she feels “simultaneously conspicuous and invisible,” and neighbor Nelia observes that “Americans can handle one person from anywhere,” such as Rita Moreno or Desi Arnaz,
But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands. No, no, no! We were only just curious. We are not actually interested in you people.
I think this novel demonstrates just how destructive fear and ignorance are, how much we hurt ourselves by not bothering to learn about those who are new and different. I don’t think The Book of Unknown Americans is marketed as YA, but I do think it would be a very appropriate and enlightening selection for teens.