Written by: Cristina Henriquez
Rating: 5 / 5 stars
Summary: 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.
Disclaimer: I was given this book by the University of Florida to judge and evaluate it for consideration as the book for the 2017 Common Reading Program.
“I didn’t want to accept that in order to move forward, I had to walk through it. It was so much easier just to believe there was another path I could take around it and that at the end of that path would be the destination I wanted.”
Review: So, I’m from a small town in Florida that houses a lot of migrant workers all year around, but especially in strawberry season. I grew up alongside immigrants even though I myself am far from being one, whether it be in classes, volunteering at their camps to help their children learn English, or just walking by them in Walmart. Some of my close friends from middle and high school are immigrant children or migrant workers, so immigrant rights are something I’m immensely passionate about. Now, I’m a college student (also in Florida, but in a different town), and about a month ago, one of my friends asked if I would like to be a part of my university’s Common Reading Program committee, which means we get to read about 30 books in a couple of months and choose one for all of our incoming first years the next year (plus their families, faculty, and anybody else who wants to on campus) to read. I pretty much get 30 free books out of the deal, and to meet people who love books just as much as I do, so of course I said yes. Now, enter The Book of Unknown Americans, a.k.a my favorite book of 2016.
The Book of Unknown Americans takes place after a family of three – the father, Arturo; the mother, Alma; and the daughter, Maribel – legally immigrate to the United States after Maribel receives a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during an unforeseen and tragic accident, causing her to become mentally disabled. The story follows these three characters and many others they meet in their apartment building in Delaware, which is populated entirely with Latinx immigrants from around the world, and the struggles they face as immigrants. There is a lot of sadness and heartbreak in this story, but also a lot of hope and love. The beauty of this story comes from the weight of the subject material, and how many hot topics in today’s society that they touch on: immigration, mental health and disabilities, domestic and sexual abuse, etc., and it also comes from the power behind Henriquez’ ability to make the pain and sadness and faith and perseverance so accessible to her readers.
Henriquez has created one of the most unique pieces of work I’ve had a pleasure to read. Although the writing is very simple and easy to follow, the subject matters are dense and intense enough that this simple writing actually helps accentuate it and make it more accessible to all readers who may or may connect to the issues at hand. Additionally, she also includes random Spanish vocabulary, but doesn’t go out of her way to define it – which I enjoy, actually, as it seems far more natural than some authors who include Spanish lingo as a lesson to the reader. It allows for the characters to become more relatable, in a strange sense, because Henriquez allows the reader to begin to further understand their cultures, especially when it relates to characters from completely different countries. To further enhance this point, almost every minor character has – chapter from their POV to accentuate the tellings of their life stories, and it is done beautifully and seamlessly, connecting to the rest of the story as a whole or providing a brief anecdote to alleviate the pressure of the story’s weight. It also aids the reader in differentiating between the various branches of Latinx culture, from Puerto Rican to Paraguayan and everywhere in between. This celebration of cultures is beautiful and truly accentuates the story and the character’s emotions, as all of them fight for their right to maintain their nationality and identity within a new nation.
As for the characters, each of them are lovable in very different ways. Maribel is the epitome of innocence, but also of misunderstood youth, as she is often babied by her parents due to her disability and treated less for it by others around her. Arturo and Alma, her parents, are the stereotypical protective parents who love their daughter so much but who are also so fearful of the future and how they can best provide for her. Mayor, Maribel’s “love interest” of sorts, is often the target of prejudice in school, but he does not allow himself to be prejudiced against Maribel for her disability, and struggles to understand why others do. All of the other minor characters in the book, including Mayor’s parents and the other tenants of the apartment building, all have their own individual quirks that, although not delved into deeply, allow for them to jump from the pages and become real and alive to the reader. Furthermore, it should be questioned: is the “villain” of this story a what or a whom? Although there is an obvious choice for who the villain of this story is, I think the larger villain at play is the system, maaaan. But seriously – I think this novel works to show the issues with the American education system especially in regards to immigrants and those with disabilities, the issues with our immigration system as a whole, and sometimes, the issue with our members of law enforcement doing their jobs properly. It shows how naive some people are, thinking that immigrants are easily “stealing our jobs and resources” and taking over the country; how ignorant some people are, thinking that people with disabilities should be able to provide for themselves; how arrogant some people are, thinking that those who don’t speak a different language have no excuse not to learn the most widely spoke language in their respective country. I hope that some with these thoughts pick up this book so that they can connect to the characters and empathize with them, as well as with other people in their real life who go through these challenges on a day-to-day basis.
Honestly, there are truly not enough words in any language for me to accurately portray how much I love this book. It has become one that any time a friend or stranger asks me for a recommendation, I all but throw it in their faces. It deals with many difficult topics that I am very familiar with due to my personal experiences and passion regarding them, but that, sadly, most others do not even know about, and I think it acts as an opportunity to educate others through an interesting and simple to read story. I know I, for one, will be advocating for this book to be chosen for our campus to read, because I believe it allows for first years, families, campus partners, faculty, and more to better understand and empathize with the fights and plights of the minorities and others surrounding them, and will inspire them to do all they can to help these people achieve both equality and their goals. And what takeaway is better than that?