Book review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henríquez

Story can do many things, but its greatest capacity, particularly in this time of division, is the power to inspire understanding of lives outside our own. Some books are a deeply-felt, resonant encounter with another’s truth.

My first read of 2017 was one such book. 

The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henríquez is told from the alternating perspectives of the working-class residents of an apartment building, all immigrants from Latin America. The principal storyline follows the newest tenants: Alma and her husband Arturo, who seek a better future for their teenage daughter Maribel, who suffered a tragic accident in México. Once they arrive, a bond develops between Maribel and the neighboring family’s teenage son, Mayor – a closeness that skirts a first, blushing romance.

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This is a story about the passions, fears, celebrations, and determination of immigrants to the United States.

Voices 

Henríquez writes with powerful simplicity of language. There is never an unnecessary frill. Moreover, Henríquez inhabits their voices vividly. Alma and Mayor’s narratives are most central. But while the interludes from other characters don’t further the plot, I enjoyed the their distinct backstories.

Mayor’s voice compelled me most. This book is not marketed as YA, but the reason I chose to feature it on the blog is because I can see it as an integral part of a high schooler’s bookshelf. Mayor tells his story with an earnestness that would be especially compelling to first-generation American teens.

“It’s in you,” my dad assured me once. “You were born in Panamá. It’s in your bones.”

I spent a lot of time trying to find it in me, but usually I couldn’t. I felt more American than anything, but even that was up for debate according to the kids at school who’d taunted me over the years, asking me if I was related to Noriega, telling me to go back through the canal. 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.

Mayor is the only character who was born in the United States, deeply aware of his status between two worlds. At the same time, he deals with general teenage awkwardness and sports. I loved reading his arc and the way that he negotiated American identity differently than the adults.

Parental Love

And I saw Maribel, looking over all of us, her face ripe with pride. I saw her growing up before me. I saw the family she would have one day and the food she would make for them. I saw her entirely life in front of her, waiting.

The most moving aspect of the book were the intense depictions of parental love, particularly from Alma and Arturo towards Maribel. Alma’s desperation to adapt to a new country, where all her familiar referents (language, friends, safety) are lost, is often painful to read. But it’s balanced with her determined love for her daughter. At one point, Alma rushes to meet Maribel at the school bus drop-off; she takes the wrong bus and runs through the rain, fear-stricken, to find her child.

Henríquez reframes the parental mundane, like picking up a child from school, in the eyes of a new immigrant, never failing to remind the reader of extraordinary love of parents who abandon everything for their child.

What’s “The Immigrant Experience”?

There is no one immigrant experience. But by the end, The Book of Unknown Americans manages to approximate a sort of essence, encapsulated in this last quote, from Maribel’s dad:

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.

This book puts a hard stop to the pervasive negative stereotyping of working-class Latino American immigrants. It fosters empathy for the diversity of experiences within a cultural group.

Since that is not my experience, I can’t vouch for cultural accuracy for all of the characters represented. In fact, this is my Expelliarmus book for the #DAReadaThon, so I acknowledge I’m reviewing from an outside perspective. However, it seemed that the voices were inhabited with compassion and meticulousness.

Mayor’s arc’s ending felt less than complete, since I had been so invested in him. Otherwise, all of the other major characters’ conclusions were rounded well, giving hope past the last page.

For a book that captures renders the souls and beating hearts of an immigrant community, recognizing universalities while respecting multiplicity, The Book of Unknown Americans is both heartbreaking and triumphant.

More perspectives

Are you planning to read The Book of Unknown Americans? Have you already read it? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

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