Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

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Title: The Book of Unknown Americans

Author: Cristina Henriquez

Publisher: Bond Street Books, a division of Random House of Canada

Date Published: June 2014

ISBN: 9780385680738

The Book of Unknown Americans

 Synopsis from Goodreads:

After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel’s recovery-the piece of the American Dream on which they’ve pinned all their hopes-will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles. At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she’s sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America. Peopled with deeply sympathetic characters, this poignant yet unsentimental tale of young love tells a riveting story of unflinching honesty and humanity that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be an American. An instant classic is born.

I read this book incredibly quickly. Once I turned to page one, I couldn’t put it down. It is a moving story about the immigration experience and the pursuit of a safe and happy life. The story explores the concept of hard-work and sacrifice. Even though the characters push themselves to the breaking point to survive, they do everything they can to get themselves even that inch closer to happiness.

What I loved most about this book was the structure. The main plot is punctuated with chapters from the points of view of each of the people living in the complex where the Riveras settle upon arriving in Delaware. Not only do we get a close up of the struggle of the Rivera and Toro families, we come to understand that their struggle is ubiquitous among all of the immigrants living there. They experience terrible and pointed racism, poverty, and judgement, all for the sake of achieving a safe life for their families. The point is raised again and again, the things they will do for the well-being of their families. Each of them is doing what they can to find a more advantageous life than the one they left behind.

Each of these families lives and works, and in many cases has citizenship, in America. They identify as American and they want to contribute to a better society. One thing that Major observes about his experience being born in Mexico but growing up in America that really struck me was, “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” (78). He feels lost. He doesn’t feel as though he has claim to either culture. The American boys in his class label him and “other” him because of his birth, but he was raised in the same culture as them and so he feels more American than Mexican. Major’s experience in the book is one of self-discovery. He is trying to figure out who he is as a young man and as a citizen.

Overall, this was a great story. Each character’s point of view is so open and raw that you can’t help but feel connected to them and their story and you hope only for them to succeed and reach their goals. There is always this constant feel that they will fail and that’s the greatest struggle: that they hover on this tipping point and event the slightest of events can send them toppling over the edge. I definitely recommend this one!

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