It’s always exciting when a Latina writer gets published. I could name a list of published Latina writers, but chances are that their names have not been spoken of in many literary circles. I may do a blog post focusing on Latina writers in the future, but for now the focus is on Cristina Henríquez and her novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans.”
The book follows Alma Rivera and her family as they emigrate from Mexico to Delaware. Alma and Arturo—her husband—come to the States in order for their daughter to attend a school that can meet her needs after she suffers a brain injury. They move into an apartment complex with neighbors from all over Mexico and Latin America, all of whom have their own reasons for emigrating to the States, both “legally” and “illegally”.
The book is told from the perspective of Alma and Mayor Toro, who ends up falling for Maribel, Alma and Arturo’s daugther. There are single chapters in this book from the perspective of the building’s residents as well, which provide quick histories of these characters.
I enjoyed reading this book for two reasons: it was a quick read and it has a great story. However, for taking on the topic of immigration, the book was a little too simplistic for me. For example, as Alma and her family struggle to adapt to their new surroundings, Mayor and his family, for the most part, are well adapted. There was not enough emphasis on the contrast between these two families and their level of “Americanness” and the struggles they faced in order to get there. We read about their personal struggles, such as Alma’s guilt over Maribel’s inury, and Mayor’s identity conflict, but these seem like an aside to the story’s plot as it relates to immigration.
The chapters with the other residents of the building also got in the way of what could’ve been a great focus on the Rivera and Toro families. It’s almost as though the other characters’ backstories took away from the book’s message, instead of adding to it. Their stories are interesting and a lot of people can relate to them, but they could be entire books on their own. I think that’s why I would’ve like it better to have the focus entirely on the Riveras and the Toros, instead of the appetizers that the other characters seemed to be. The two families would’ve sufficed.
Don’t get me wrong—it is a great book! But it seemed like an introduction to immigration for someone who doesn’t personally know any immigrants or immigrant stories. It would make a great read for a highscool freshman class as well. I think students could use this book as a starting point to talk about immigration.
I’m giving this one three stars.