Published by Knopf
Publication date: June 3rd 2014
We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize we’re not that bad, maybe even we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?
When their daughter, Maribel, suffers a traumatic brain injury that affects her memory and ability to retain information, Arturo and Alma Rivera are told there is a school in America that can help her more than any one in Mexico can. So, as any parents who love their child would do, they upend their lives and head to a new country to get her the best care possible. Armed with a work visa for Arturo they arrive in Delaware, speaking no English, but with a connection that gets them an apartment in a small building composed solely of other Latino families. There they slowly begin the process of assimilation and building a community in The Book of Unknown Americans, a poignant novel by Cristina Henriquez that goes beneath the surface of our differences to the critical mass of our sameness.
Like many before them, Arturo and Alma find the reality of life in Delaware to be wildly different than what they were told. At its most basic level is the language barrier, something that resonated with me after being in a foreign country this summer and finding the inability to communicate about even the simplest matters to be incredibly frustrating. And these were touristy, superficial communications. Imagine then, trying to find your daughter who has not come home on the school bus.
The woman said something else that I couldn’t understand and I nearly wept in frustration. They were only words. I had the sense that I should have been able to unpack them, that there was only a thin veneer separating me from their meaning, and yet that veneer was impenetrable.
In this way, Maribel’s unique situation makes the Riveras’ life even more fraught with tension, but Henriquez goes beyond the family to encompass many of the lives that brush up against theirs. On a broader level it is members of all the various families who live in the building with the stories of their lives in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama to how they are striving for safety and a better life in America. Closer in there is budding relationship between Maribel and a teenage Panamanian boy who, in accepting her as she is, begins to bring her out of her shell. Through each of the characters and their relationships Henriquez melds the issues unique to immigrants with the universal themes of love, fear, intolerance and acceptance in a way that makes for powerful reading.
The Book of Unknown Americans is quiet novel that still sears itself into the mind and, given the environment we live in now with the fear mongering and hatred ratcheting up every day, is timely reading. Henriquez accomplishes the most difficult task of any author: taking the reader out of their own life and settling them into realities they’ve never known. Making them consider that their beliefs are not just misguided but inaccurate. She does so with such a gentle touch that there is no sense of being manipulated, just of realizing that the entire concept of us versus them is one that brings heartbreak to us all.