Originally published November 2014
As we head into the month of November, the month that shines a light on enhancing that gratitude attitude, it was kismet that Cristina Henriquez’s novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, came up in my library queue.
It’s remarkable what fiction can do.
Henriquez’s patchwork collection of the stories of lives from an apartment complex in Delaware exemplify everything that’s right about the spirit of hard work, ingenuity, and what’s possible in the United States. And what’s tragic, too.
The opening of the book finds Alma and Arturo, along with their daughter, Maribel, arriving in Delaware after a long van ride from Mexico. Visas in hand, the family has come to the States in hopes of finding better educational opportunities for Maribel, who suffers from a brain injury.
Arturo has found work with a mushroom producer—a far cry from the days of managing a construction business in Mexico. But because Maribel means more than anything to both he and Alma, they’re willing to put their lives on hold to hope for better for her.
The apartment complex provides the backdrop for the families that become intertwined throughout the novel—in particular, Rafael and Celia, along with their son Mayor. Celia befriends Alma, which in turn brings together Mayor and Maribel, one of my favorite literary star-crossed set of lovers in quite some time. Their relationship is bittersweet and just plain old touching.
The book is a tangle of all kinds of emotions—fierce determination, resentment, curiosity, regret, guilt, jealousy, love, anger, pride and grace. Which all serves to remind the reader that those we think are unlike us in so many ways really are not unlike us at all. We all have families for which we would go to the ends of the earth to make them better. We all fall victim to our own pride. And we all should be grateful for our health, our homes and our happiness, even on what could feel like the bleakest of days.
There are several periphery characters I wish readers could get to know better—Henriquez hints at bigger issues with Mayor’s older brother Enrique, a collegiate soccer phenom, but they’re not addressed. But at the end, I wish there was a way to peek into Mayor and Maribel’s future to just know that they are OK.
A beautiful story and one I can see being taught in high school—great for adults and teens.