19 Aug / The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
Oh, oh, oh. You know something special is coming when I start with those three simple syllables. Because big words like ‘remarkable,’ ‘marvelous,’ ‘resonating’ just don’t carry the same admiring adoration as plain old ‘oh, oh, oh.’ I’m also hoping that sort of speechless reaction is enough to make you stop here and start reading for yourself.
If you need to know a little more, here we go: Christina Henríquez’s second novel (and third book) is about love – the many ways family and friends share and sustain their love for one another in a world too often threatened by hateful others and onerous circumstances.
Arturo and Alma leave their comfortable life in Mexico to travel 30 hours north of the border and arrive in rundown Newark, Delaware. From there, Arturo crosses into Pennsylvania daily to sort mushrooms for too many darkened hours while Alma worries endlessly, so that their teenage daughter Maribel might recover from a debilitating accident.
Their neighbors, Rafael and Celia, left Panamá to escape the gunfire, murders, and fear of living in a war zone: “How can I describe what it was like during the invasion?” They escaped with their young son,s Enrique and Mayor, who grow up, in spite of the racially-charged bullying Mayor especially endures, feeling “more American than anything.” Years later, Rafael is “cast as a holier-than-thou gringo” for defecting to the country that had invaded their homeland.
And so Mayor and Maribel meet. They fall in love, which miraculously accelerates Maribel’s recovery. And then … well, isn’t there always an ‘ … and then’? This is where I stop with any spoilers, because you’re going to have to discover ‘and then’ on your own.
Henríquez enhances and elaborates the teenagers’ shared narrative with a community of diverse immigrant voices, including a Rita Moreno-inspired would-be dancer from Puerto Rico, a widower who survived horrific violence in Guatemala only to be mistreated in México, a would-be priest who left the poverty of Nicaragua and ran drugs before he settled on flipping burgers at “the King,” and a nosy neighbor from Venezuela with a glamorous stopover in Long Beach where a stepbrother raped her and her mother refused to believe her. If you choose to go audible (highly recommended!), Henríquez’s chorus – the eponymous “Unknown Americans” – gets an entire cast of accomplished narrators to broadcast the frustrations and prayers, the resignation and tenacity, the rejection and support, the animosity and hope. On the page or stuck in the ears, these stories will saturate your soul.
Tidbit: As we are all immigrants (perhaps even the Native Americans who arrived via the Bering Strait centuries before the rest of us), Henríquez invites you to share your own story here: “One of my hopes for The Book of Unknown Americans was that it might tell stories people don’t usually hear. And now, another hope: that we will all tell our #UnknownAmerican stories. Where did you or your family come from? What is your life like now? We’ll create a chorus and make our voices known.” Hear us roar for sure!