For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Book of Unknown Americans

Posted on: October 7, 2014

Cristina Henriquez, The Book of Unknown Americans, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 286 pp.

Unknown AmericansThis book drew my eye because it tells an often untold story–a novel set amidst the lives of immigrant workers (documented and undocumented) in the United States. Henriquez enters an invisible community and creates a rich and interesting cast of characters.

The central family in the story is the Riveras, who lead a contented and happy life in Mexico until their 15 year old daughter Maribel suffers a traumatic brain injury after an accident. Maribel slowly returns to school and life, but her spirit is lost to her and to her parents, so they make the journey to Dover, Delaware on the information about a school there that might help her recovery. Her father, Arturo, takes hard work in a sweatshop, which had obtained their visas, while her mother stays home in the small apartment to care for Maribel and the family’s needs.

The early part of the story marks the Rivera family’s first days in the bewildering maze of U.S. bounty and scarcity. They need to find a way to eat, navigate the bus system, find resources and more, all without knowing the language. As they slowly find patterns of living and sustaining themselves, the story opens up into a sweet, star-crossed love story between Maribel and one of the neighbors in the complex, Mayor Toro. The novel detailful s overprotective parents (a common theme in immigrant families), misunderstandings, false accusations and youthful acts of rebellion that carry greater weight given the fragility of immigrant life and status.

The novel is told from a variety of perspectives, taking a peek into the lives of various individuals and families at the small apartment complex packed with immigrant Latino families. Henriquez tells their stories individually, giving a perspective on why they came to the United States, how they got there, and what life has been like for them since they arrived. While some of the portraits are a bit flat, they still offer an interesting window into a unique community. I find myself driving by similar apartment complexes and motels in my own small town with a deeper appreciation of the lives going on inside.

The Book of Unknown Americans is a good story with interesting characters and setting. I enjoyed the perspective of life among an imagined immigrant community, and insights into the potential challenges and possibilities.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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