Every now and then I read a book that just touches my heart. The Book of Unknown Americans is such a book. From the first pages I was captivated by the sustained voices of the characters written with such grace and dignity as I felt their humanity, hopefulness, and despair to do what they had to do ensure a better life for their children and often, times themselves. I so enjoyed how the author connects the reader to the characters.
The story opens with Arturo and Alma Rivera arriving in Newark, Delaware with their daughter, Maribel. The Riveras have sold their construction business, left their comfortable life in Mexico so that Maribel can get the education and treatment to hopefully recover as best as she can from the brain damage caused by an unfortunate accident. That first night in a bare-bones apartment that has been better days, Alma listens to her husband and daughter sleeping and thinks:
“The surge of possibility. The tug of doubt. Had we done the right thing coming here? Of course, I know the answer. We had done what we had to do.”
As we follow the Riveras journey, meeting the Toros and other Central and Latin American immigrants we learn of their plights realizing these are slices of life that happen universally. But because of who these immigrants are often times they are defined by preconceived notions not as individuals.
“I felt the way I often felt in this country-simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”
For me the interesting title is summed up by one of the characters.
“We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe event that we’re a lot like them.”
Henriquez’s masterful story is compassionate, courageous and creative. The compelling characters encapsulate the undulating sweet-and-sour spectrum of life and will stay with you after turning the last page. I recommend this book to readers who are looking for an entertaining yet thought-provoking read.