I read this book in the passenger seat of a seven hour drive over the Memorial Weekend. It was–in short–amazing.
What I liked most about this book was the interweaving of stories and the fact that it didn’t drag on too long. It had one major story–the Rivera family coming from Mexico to America in order to get their daughter, Maribel, admitted to a special needs school–and one minor story–Mayor Toro, the young son of the neighbors in the building the Riveras now live in, falling in love with Maribel and the families’ reaction to it all. It alternated viewpoints from Maribel’s mother, Alma, and Mayor, and then sprinkled within were stories narrated by other Latino Americans.
But what was also genius and thought-provoking was the fact that the major story wasn’t really the major theme. Neither was the minor story. The major theme of the story was the idea of race and culture and how people groups are largely overlooked and cast aside. The apartment building both the Riveras and Toros lived was also filled with families and people from Mexico, Panama, Cuba, Nicaragua, and other Spanish-speaking countries. And their tales told of how they came to America searching for a better life, or to pursue a dream, and the views of White Americans have of them. Though they were all citizens and in the country legally, socially they were looked at as being low class or not worth anything. Which is why they call themselves the “Unknown Americans.”
Which is a lot to take in. Especially all at once. In a seven hour drive. With squabbling children in the backseat.
The writing was just like the story. Succinct. There was enough description without going overboard. The interweaving stories from the other apartment residents gave the book depth without making the reader feel confused with different viewpoints. The love story was interesting without being young adult novel-ish. And the story of the Riveras was compelling.
I won’t give away any more, because for the first time in a long time the ending was spectacular. All the pieces fell into place at just the right moments and even though it wasn’t anything twisted or surprising, it gave its story justice.
Five gold stars for The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.