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Friday, November 25, 2016

Book Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

I picked up this book just because it is set in Delaware, and it's interesting that the last books I'm reading for my 50 States Challenge are proving to be excellent.

I'm not sure exactly why this book is set in Delaware, except maybe to show the immigrant experience in a place that isn't a border state, and therefore can be a stand-in for Anywhere, USA. The story centers around Maribel and her parents, the Riveras. Maribel suffered a traumatic brain injury back in Mexico and her parents waited over a year to legally emigrate to the United States so Maribel can attend a special public high school that they hope will help with the long-lasting, perhaps permanent, issues arising from the TBI. Their new apartment building is almost entirely filled with Latino/as from Central America, including the Toro family downstairs, and their teenage son Mayor, who falls for Maribel the minute he sees her, despite her limitations.

At first it seems like things are going better for the Riveras. The father has to do manual labor picking mushrooms in Pennsylvania, whereas he was a contractor back in Mexico, so their standard of living has dropped, but Maribel does seem to be improving, her mother is taking English classes, and they are making some friends in the building. But there's a creepy boy hanging around who seems to have an unhealthy interest in Maribel, and some other things go wrong. Then one night everything bad happens.

I wasn't expecting the dramatic change from a happy family who was starting to get some traction, to a very sad and brutal ending. The tonal shift didn't feel adequately foreshadowed and so it felt like the book took a sudden left turn. Granted, life can be that way sometimes. But it still felt unsatisfying when the book feels like one kind of book for 3/4 and then dramatically changes.

That said, I really liked the Riveras and the Toros. I even liked the other random people whose stories were interspersed throughout in brief 2-3 page tales of their immigration and life in America, such as the landlord, and the annoying wealthier woman. Everyone was fleshed out and felt truly three-dimensional, aside from the bad kid (although he even shows a glimpse of what turned him into a bad kid, with a throwaway line about his bad home life.) I think this book is super-important to read right now to understand what the immigrant experience can be like, how every immigrant has a unique story and a personal reason for leaving, some perhaps feeling like they didn't have a choice. It was eye-opening in that way, and I really got to care for these people.

I checked this book out of the library.

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