Book Review

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

“People do what they have to in this life. We try to get from one end of it to the other with dignity and with honor. We do the best we can.”

Dear Reader,

Sometimes I wonder how far am I from the person I want to become?

For me, a major birthday milestone is around the corner, and am I any closer to that ideal? Or am I a self-portrait that will never be complete? Recently I became a mother and I wonder what I have to offer her. I want to believe that I am an empathetic person and have the capability to teach my daughter how to love others. As I read The Book of Unknown Americans I’m appalled by how some of the characters are treated, but is my apathy any better?

The heart of this novel is about the Rivera family who loved their quiet happy life in Mexico. A tragic accident almost steals their teenage daughter’s life and, hoping to help her mental state, they head for America. Life is hard in Delaware, but the family finds solace with their neighbors.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasis that Henriquez’ focus isn’t to change minds about illegal immigration. It is a focal point in her novel but she’s more concerned about the growing harsh treatment of hispanic immigrants. There’s an array of colorful characters that live at the Redwood apartments: All immigrants with a variety of reasons for giving up their home for the United States. For some, it’s due to the horrors of war. For others, it’s just to fulfill a dream. A majority of the characters have been in the States for decades and a handful are citizens.

“I know some people here think we’re trying to take over, but we just want to be a part of it. We want to have our stake. This is our home, too.”

The bulk of the narration belongs to Alma (the matriarch of the Riveras) and Mayor Toro, the young man who befriends her daughter, the beautiful and broken Maribel. While the Riveras are dealing with the harsh realities of being new to the States, Mayor deals with being both American and Panamanian. Mayor’s family, the Toro’s, moved to the States when he was an infant but is still treated like a foreigner at school. In Maribel, Mayor sees another outsider as he witnesses how others belittle Maribel due to her accident. The plot of the novel follows the evolution of Mayor and Maribel’s friendship that turns into something deeper and the impact it has on both families.

So what does immigration and empathy have to do with one another? A strong personal opinion of mine is that the way we as a society treat immigrants (and also minorities) reflects our emotional health. America always had trouble with “the other” and though there is progress it is very slow. Henriquez asks that we stop to consider the individuals involved. Do we show empathy towards our neighbor as they struggle in a new country?

I hope my daughter does.

And that’s why when she is old enough I would recommend this book to her.

“The characters were not unknown because they were illegal or didn’t have the documents but because people didn’t want to know them.”

In The Margins:

  • All quotes are from the book and next time I will note the pages.
  • This is just a book review, so I’m not going to bother tackling the behemoth that is illegal immigration, but whatever is decided I just hope we don’t lose our empathy (and souls) in the process.
  • My goodness this brought back memories of living overseas for nine weeks. I have all the patience for people who have a hard time with English.
  • Get ready for Winter! The next book: The Snow Child
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