“Besides, I don’t need anyone’s pity. My life has been what it has been. It’s not a wonderful story, but it’s mine.”
In general, Americans tend to associate immigration with hopefulness. A certain level of dreamy ambition. But in reality and in Cristina Henriquez’s second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, the sad undercurrent of immigration and migration in the Americas comes to the surface. The story follows the experience of several families and individuals who share an apartment building in a lackluster part of Delaware. In particular, it traces the budding love of two teenagers, Maribel and Mayor, and the intertwining of their two households. Henriquez masterfully taps into the heart of each family; she exposes the international roots that led everyone to this unglamorous corner of the United States and, with a deft hand, displays the trials and tribulations that they face. And she charts their minor successes and their brief joys. I could argue that Henriquez’s greatest success comes from her ability to capture that particular brand of sorrow leaving one’s own culture brings. The way food looks and tastes different, the changed smells in the air, the language barriers that isolate and heighten every source of fear. From Panama to Mexico, each immigrant carries their own story in their heart. They move in and out of Maribel and Mayor’s view, but Henriquez punctuates the novel with their stories. Their heartbreaks, their loves.
As a young child, I was taught that to empathize with others, one must read voraciously. How could one ever expect to understand someone culturally different than oneself without reading his or her story?
This is that story.
Henriquez captures the political and social climate of immigration in the United States without becoming preachy. She paints an intimate portrait of loss and becoming that separates itself profoundly from other literature produced in this country at this point in time. If you want to understand the experience of an American population that we often overlook, read this book. If you’d prefer to read an immersive, beautifully rendered narrative about the struggles of family and pride, read this book. I think you get where I’m going with this.