The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
(Knopf, 2014, 286 pages)
This is novel by Henríquez has been receiving attention since it initially came out. I picked up the audiobook which was narrated by a full cast – a format well-suited for this title which has chapters told from the perspective of various characters.
The Riveras are the main family the novel revolves around. Alma and Arturo moved to Vermont so they could enroll their teenage daughter, Maribel, in a school that is best suited to her special situation. After a fall from a ladder she suffered brain damage and the schools in Mexico weren’t able to offer her the kind of support that she needed. There are obviously a number of cultural differences when the family moves to America, the language barrier is just one issue they have to deal with. But as the Riveras attempt to adjust to their new lives, they are introduced to other people and families with similar backgrounds. Those who traveled to the United States for various reasons and have stayed and claimed it as their own. Their stories are interspersed between the Rivera plot line and offer a different glimpse at what the immigrant experience in America is like.
Alma and Arturo are doing what they can to give Maribel a better life, but she starts to really show improvement when Mayor, a young man who lives in her apartment building, forms a friendship with her. She appreciates him because when they’re together she doesn’t feel as if he’s treating her differently due to her injury. She feels like he sees her for her and this helps her to improve in a number of ways. Unfortunately her parents seem to be caught up in viewing Maribel as someone to be treated delicately and they don’t want her fraternizing with boys unsupervised, even if they do know the boy in question.
The Book of Unknown Americans was well-written and I appreciated that there was more to the story than simply finding out if the Riveras were going to make it. The interspersed narratives with other immigrants added depth to the book because so many of them echoed a similar sentiment of never really being able to escape the labels of “immigrant” and “different.” Despite obtaining citizenship and proudly supporting the country, they always feel they are viewed with an element of suspicion and as being “less than” other Americans. While I wasn’t necessarily blown away by the story, I did enjoy it.