Wednesday, April 08, 2015

What we're reading: The immigrant experience

The Book of Unknown Americans is the story of family, love, and loss in an immigrant community in Delaware. When the Rivera family moves to Delaware from Mexico, it is with the hope of better schooling for their daughter Maribel, who sustained brain damage as a result of an accident a year earlier. After obtaining a work visa from the only place he can--a mushroom farm in Delaware--the Riveras arrive in the United States, where Arturo has to work long hours in the dark without a break and Alma struggles to deal with everyday life in a completely unfamiliar language. But the Riveras also find a supportive community in their apartment building, especially the Toros, longtime immigrants from Panama who are also struggling because of the recession. The Toros's teenage son Mayor feels an instant attraction to Maribel, and the two soon form a friendship. Maribel feels like Mayor is the only one who sees the real girl behind the effects of her injury, and their daily interactions help Maribel improve in school. But because of his closeness to Maribel, Mayor cannot understand or accept that they cannot have the freedom other teens might have, and their carelessness leads to a tragedy that neither family could have foreseen.

The Riveras' story is interwoven with stories from the other residents in their community, telling the reader about their reasons for leaving their countries and settling in Delaware. But through the Riveras' eyes, we can really be witness to the immigrant experience with all the challenges and confusion of everyday things many people take for granted. Through Alma's voice, we see what it feels like to not know where to shop for food, not be able to communicate with your child's school, to get lost in a completely unfamiliar area without cell phone reception and knowledge of the bus system. The Riveras' neighbors' stories are also those of immigration and finding a new home, but they are all unique. There's Quisqueya Solis, who fled Venezuela to escape harassment from her stepbrother; Fito Angelino, who left Paraguay to be a boxer but ended up in Delaware after he ran out of money, and now owns the building where the Riveras and the Toros live. There's Nelia Zafon, who left Puerto Rico at seventeen with dreams to become a star on Broadway, but had to settle for a smaller dream of starting a theater company in Delaware.

Although the book contains these stories and many more about the Latino immigrant community, its main focus is on the Riveras, its newest members. It is their life, their tragedy that shines the brightest and captures and breaks the reader's heart. This is no high-achieving work of literary fiction. It is simply a human story readers will connect with, and a page-turner about family, first love, and a set of people who are as different as they are alike.

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