BY CASEY ROEPKE ’21
The beginning of this summer was shaped by the Trump administration’s family separation policy. As photographs of toddlers in cages, recordings of children crying for their parents and statements of utter inaction from elected officials flooded the news cycle, Mount Holyoke students sat down to read this year’s Common Read, “The Book of Unknown Americans.” Within its pages they found solace and its captivating characters and bittersweet moments were made to seem even more important by the real-world events happening in the U.S.
“The Book of Unknown Americans” is Cristina Henríquez’s second novel and is a mastery of character development and narration. The story is told by several characters, alternating between chapters. These characters are different ages and genders and are from different backgrounds, but they all share one common identity: they immigrated to the United States from Central or South America. The main two families — the Riveras and the Toros — live in the same tenement building and form a close friendship.
The driving force of the novel is the Riveras. The book begins after Alma Rivera and her husband, Arturo, leave their comfortable life in Pátzcuaro, Mexico for Delaware in hope of better resources for their daughter Maribel, who has suffered a severe head injury. Alma is optimistic yet cautious about the move; she believes that this opportunity will help her daughter, but with Maribel at school and Arturo at work on a mushroom farm, she feels alone in a country that speaks a language she doesn’t know.
Alma’s resilience is inspiring and compelling. She adapts to different cooking ingredients and cultural norms, and even adjusts her relationships with her family as they navigate their new lives. But it is not her resilience itself that is so compelling — it’s the fact that each act of bravery is done despite pure and unadulterated fear. In a pivotal moment in the story, she chooses to make a trek to the residence of a boy she finds dangerous — but she does it to protect her daughter and her family.
Other characters are just as vivid as Alma, as if they come alive through Henríquez’s words. Mayor Toro is another of these characters; he is an insecure teenage boy who is struggling to live up to the expectations of his family. He is almost instantly enthralled by Maribel, and their deep connection causes a lot of pain for both families.
Although covering many complex and intersecting issues, Henríquez stays away from further nuance; for example, she does not include the important perspective of an undocumented immigrant. Yet, her diverse and ever-changing cast of narrators still manages to ground the book in the struggle of a wide community. She manages to capture so many diverse points of view with her ever-changing narrators, which convey the struggle of a community who relies on one another.
“The Book of Unknown Americans” is not simply “good.” It is riveting, beautiful, important and very topical. The stories of the characters are captivating on their own, but the current events happening in the United States and around the world surrounding immigration put this book in a different light. With her title, Henríquez suggests that the stories of the characters within the book are “unknown,” but her unparalleled mastery of character development and heart-wrenching plot twists make the case that they shouldn’t be.