Opposing ideas about immigration have caused much conflict, but they seldom scratch the surface to peer into the identity and hopes and dreams of those who come to the United States. A 2014 novel, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez does just that. Author Henriquez is the daughter of an immigrant, graduated from Northwestern University and also writes for the New Yorker magazine.
A tattered apartment house in Delaware is home to several immigrant families from various Latin American countries. The stories of these nine families from Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Venezuela are told in the first person in alternating chapters. Without self-pity, the reasons of why these main and supporting characters left their homelands to come to the United States are shared. The writing is simple and easy to read. The voice of each character expresses that the American dream is not so easy to define or achieve. One character says, “We are the unknown Americans” and the feelings of being invisible, stereotyped and feared populate the book.
The Book of Unknown Americans centers on the Rivera family and why Alma and Arturo brought their brain damaged daughter Maribel to the United States to attend a special school. Leaving behind a wonderful home and relations in Mexico and bearing a visa to do farm work, they are fish out of water in Delaware. It is at the apartment house that they meet their neighbors and young Maribel develops a sweet romance with a son of the family on another floor. Readers will sense that more tragedy looms for the Rivera family, but don’t know when or how it will come.
This is a remarkable and memorable novel that immediately engages readers and leaves them thinking long after finishing the last page. Shedding politics and finding compassion, this is a lovely, heartbreaking, book.