Review: Cristina Henríquez. The Book of Unknown Americans. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.ISBN: 9780385350846 (hardcover : alk. paper).
By Kathy Cano-Murillo
Eloquent melodrama. That is how I describe The Book of Unknown Americans. At first glance, it seems like another novel about the immigrant experience. While that’s the obvious premise, it takes a backseat to the real meat of the book: young love, family drama and friendships.
The heart of the story is the incandescent Maribel, the 15-year-old daughter of Arturo and Alma Rivera. It’s an injury of hers that brings her family to the United States during the first half of Obama’s presidency. Her overprotective mother, eager to “fix” her, learns of a special needs school in Delaware that can help. Arturo reluctantly agrees and they follow precise and tedious protocol to enter the United States legally. “Because we are not like the others,” Alma says, pridefully.
They arrive to find that their American dream is more of a nightmare. Everything from the living conditions to the food and weather is a downgrade compared to what they had and loved in Mexico. Their saving grace? The friendships they form with their new (also immigrant) neighbors in the rundown apartment complex. Throughout the book, each of their stories are revealed. They are Mexican, Panamanian, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan just to name a few. Their reasons for moving here are just as varied as their charm. While these passages don’t have a direct influence on Maribel’s story, they do add flavor to the book’s message of giving us insight to these “unknown Americans.” Author Henríquez presents them with a string of small moments that add up to big, unforgettable personalities.
The Rivera family makes progress in their new home and their destiny unfolds. On one end is a racist bully who taunts Maribel. And at the other end is the boy, Mayor, who falls in love with her. The two strike up a quiet, tender friendship that eventually blossoms into first love. But eventually all of the factors collide due to misunderstandings, lies, guilt, and secrets. The drama that had slowly unfolded in previous chapters, explodes all at one time... and subsides just as fast. This is my only complaint with The Book of Unknown Americans. Perhaps its the romantic in me, I wish the post-climax ending had a little more room to settle and exhale. But as we all know, real life doesn’t always work out the way we want.
I honestly didn’t expect to love this book. I expected a heavy, serious tale of struggle and I braced myself for some somber reading. I was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite. It is well-written and is bubbling with emotion. It’s a universal story about families working together for the common goal of creating a better life. Supporting one another when the bottom falls out. It captured me within the first few pages, and I put my life on hold for a weekend while I devoured each chapter!
Henríquez did a brilliant job in sharing a glance inside the lives of those normally overlooked and even ignored. I do hope for a sequel! You know you’ve finished a great book when you put it on the shelf and sigh because you’re wondering about what will become of these characters. That’s what this book did for me. It reminded me that every human being has a story, and every one deserves to be acknowledged.
Crristina Henríquez is also the author of The World in Half and Come Together, Fall Apart.
She has launched The Unknown Americans Project on Tumblr. Visit the site to to read stories or add your own! http://unknownamericans.tumblr.com/ See more about Christina Henríquez at her site, http://www.cristinahenriquez.com/
La Bloga welcomes Kathy Cano-Murillo as our guest reviewer. Kathy first visited La Bloga in Daniel Olivas' Spotlight On back in 2010.
She is the author of the novels Waking Up in the Land of Glitter and Miss Scarlet’s School of Patternless Sewing.
You can see more about her at her site, CraftyChica.com.
La Bloga On-line Floricanto: Yago S. Cura
Only the score is even at 91:01:16. Iran outplays, out-thinks a humbled Argentina. Iran’s impenetrable sea of red rejects any challenge to the tie they’ve won today. Univision’s announcers declare Iran the better team, should have won the game. Then a minute and seventeen seconds into stoppage time, Messi gets the ball.
ODE TO LEONEL MESSI
By Yago S. Cura
Oh Messi, the words don’t like to heel;
they rear up like coked-up Clydesdales
to stamp the tales of your devious feet.
It’s just that you’re a meñique Loki—
an algebra prodigy with filthy squaw hair,
a mischief wick, Pre-Cambrian fireworks
display, you’re like nighttime diving from
the Concussion Quarry. Messi, your tech is
so untextbook—I want to stun each cell
of the reel where your feet call the shots.
Faster than fast, surpassing speeding
catalysts of exponential acceleration:
Messi you are like ten ton cubes of pins,
toothpicks, and shattered plate glass
by Tara Donovan.
We expect your currency in malicious slide tackles,
oodles of shin splits, and cleats in muscle’s mignon.
Maybe the growth hormone Barcelona bought for you
held the genetic credit of petite assassin panthers?
Or, the supersonic locura that drives
greyhounds bonkers and makes them chase
lures in fashionable muzzles and pennies.
Read more of Yago S. Cura's fútbol odes in last week's La Bloga-Jueves Thursday, Lydia Gil's Libros sobre fútbol y Fútbol Poems.