Cristina Henriquez * Vintage * March 3, 2015 * 304 Pages
The Book of Unknown Americans is written from the perspective of several people, all immigrants to the United States, living in a bare-bones apartment complex in Delaware. Most of the chapters focus on Alma, a woman who has just arrived from Mexico with her husband and brain-injured daughter, and Mayor, a boy who lives in the same apartment complex and who falls for Alma’s daughter. But, every so often, lesser-known characters briefly share their stories – how they’ve come to be where they are, and what they’ve lost and gained along their unlikely journeys into the state.
The relationships between the main characters, especially, are wonderful. I loved watching the friendship, etc., develop between Mayor and Maribel. Their connection was unique and unexpected. Honestly, I wish I had been able to know Maribel more fully; I wish I had been able to read her thoughts,. But she was like a treasure that Henriquez kept tightly hidden, and the only way to discover her was through Mayor. It was a strange way to reveal a character, but I still appreciated the unconventional approach. I loved how Mayor loved Maribel, and how Maribel opened up to him (and the reader) in return. “That was the thing about Maribel: No matter how many times I proved it, she didn’t think I was an idiot. She just took me. She took me in. Such a simple fucking thing.”
I have to say, this book shook me more than I thought it would. It wasn’t that it was overwhelmingly sad or depressing (though it was sad and depressing). I think I was just really impressed with Henriquez’s ability to portray the lives of these extremely poor and mostly powerless people, in a way that was authentic and deep and meaningful – but also not patronizing. She brought to life that nebulous concept of the “immigrant experience.”
And I think there was even more to it than that. I don’t consider myself someone who feels entitled in life. I know life is hard, and I don’t feel surprised or indignant when I experience hardship. Truth be told, the past four months of my life have been some of the most difficult I’ve ever faced: new baby, postpartum depression, job loss, job search, and, now, relocation to another state. But I have never felt that I was above adversity, that I was too good for bad times. In fact, I wholeheartedly agreed with Arturo when he said at the end of this book that life is difficult for everyone; most people just try to get from one end of it to the other with a little bit of dignity and honor.
However, Unknown Americans really clarified for me how, even in my low moments – even in my very low moments of the past few months – I am still so incredibly lucky. Straight lucky. And more to the point, in reality, I do expect – and legitimately can expect – quite a lot out of life. I am educated. I live in a time and place where women are, by and large, respected (physically, intellectually, and emotionally) and encouraged to engage in tasks beyond housework and childcare. I live in a safe neighborhood. I’ve always had enough money to feed and clothe myself and my family. I’ve always had a roof over my head and access to quality healthcare.
Even when my husband was without a job, I had no doubt that one of us could get one eventually. In fact, truthfully I always knew that we weren’t even just looking for any job, but for the “right” one for our family’s needs – and having that mindset is an incredible luxury in and of itself.
The point being, that my whole life has consisted of options – mostly dignified and respectable options – and that isn’t necessarily something all of the characters in this book can claim.
In the end, Unknown Americans taught me something about a subject I didn’t know much about. It gave me perspective – and all through a very interesting, creative, and complex story. For those reasons, I’d say this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while.