The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Author: H. C. Newton at The Irresponsible Reader
Arturo climbed out first, straightened his cowboy hat, and surveyed the building. Two stories, made of cinder blocks and cement, an outdoor walkway that ran the length of the second floor with metal staircases at either end, pieces of broken Styrofoam in the grass, a chain-link fence along the perimeter of the lot, cracks in the asphalt. I had expected it to be nicer.
This building is home — for better or worse — for Spanish-speaking families for a variety of reasons, in a variety of ways, from Mexico and Central American countries, primarily. As they’re in the country under similar circumstances, they are probably a little more of a community than many similar buildings.
The novel progresses through a three-chapter cycle. In the first chapter we meet Alma, who with her husband, Arturo and daughter, Maribel, have moved to Delaware to take advantage of a school that can hopefully help Maribel recover from a recent accident. The next chapter is narrated by Mayor, a high school student struggling to fit into his social environment, despite the fact he emigrated with his mother, father, and older brother from Panama over a decade previously. Mayor was struck by cupid’s arrow the first time he saw Maribel, and much of the novel’s action surrounds the relationship between the two. The chapter cycle begins with Alma and her family trying to acclimate, switches to Mayor struggling to get by, and then moves on to someone else living in the building before coming back to Alma. The third, rotating, chapters are less narrative and more of a “here’s my life story — why and how I came to America, how am I getting along here” type thing than part of the overall narrative.
I’m not convinced this approach did many favors for the reader. It does succeed in showing a diversity in Spanish-speaking immigrants, serving as a reminder that not all immigrants come to the U.S. for the same reason or from the same country. The novel seems to focus on trying to inform the reader — this is what this person’s life is like, the circumstances they find themselves in, like a tug-at-the-heart feature on the evening news.
While the novel succeeded in informing about characters, I’m not convinced it helped me empathize with them, I didn’t connect with them. There was a whole lot more telling than showing, and with each time through the chapter cycle, it almost felt like momentum was stopped and had to be built up again, the narrative didn’t so much flow as start and stop. Every time I got into a groove with Alma or Mayor, it seemed it was time for their chapter to end and someone else’s to start. I had an easier time getting back into Mayor’s storyline than Alma’s, but that could also be a function of having Alma’s chapter precede his, smoothing the way after the changing (and narrative-killing) perspective of the 3rd Chapters.
So as part of this United States of Books series, one thing I want to look at is why the book was chosen, what did the novel teach me about the state, why did EW pick it as “the one work of fiction that best defines” Delaware.
How do the stories of a collection of Central and South American immigrants define Delaware? What are they even doing there? Granted, everything I know about Delaware could be summed up by the facts and figures I learned in 5th grade and those few seconds in Wayne’s World, but there was nothing about this novel that screamed Delaware to me. I kept wondering why Delaware, why didn’t Henríquez use Texas, or a Midwest or Western state known for migrant workers?
Then, on page 145, one of the characters — the building’s manager-turned-owner, Fito Angelino — asks the question I’d been asking since Chapter 1. He was nice he was nice enough to answer it, too:
Who comes to the United States and ends up in Delaware? l for one never thought I’d be here. But I’ve been surprised. It’s popular with the Latinos. And all because of the mushroom farms over in Pennsylvania. Half the mushrooms in the country are grown there. Back in the seventies, they used to hire Puerto Ricans to harvest everything, but now it’s the Mexicans. And they used to set up the workers with housing, too. Shitty housing with rats as big as rabbits, boarded-up windows, no hot water. After Reagan’s amnesty deal, the workers started bringing their families up from México. They didn’t put their wives and children up in that shitty housing, though. They found other places to live. Places like Delaware. It’s cheaper than Pennsylvania. And no sales tax. We have all the Spanish supermarkets now, and the school district started those English programs.
Which wasn’t the answer I expected, but it’ll work — Delaware is Pennsylvania’s spare room, I guess.
As a novel, I don’t think The Book of Unknown Americans quite worked. As a series of glances at what the experience can be like for those who find themselves in the United States after starting off in another country, it’s effective enough — but perhaps real stories would’ve been stronger than these fictionalized tales — but as a whole, it didn’t work. It did a better job telling me how to feel than making me feel anything. I’d have gladly read more about Mayor and his life — same for Alma and her family’s struggles — but presented like this left me wanting more from the book.