The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, a book review

True Story: In 1976, I sat in a first grade classroom at Roswell North Elementary in Roswell, Georgia. My teacher wanted us all to learn about ourselves and one another. One by one, she pointed us out as she moved through the long columns of terrified students, and we told our classmates about our heritages. Students more or less proudly admitted to being half-this or a quarter-that. We didn't talk about lineage in my house. I don't think it ever occurred to anyone to do so really. We were American. At some point, I'm sure I realized I looked (mostly) Norman-French, like most Americans of western European descent, but genealogy? I don't think anyone cared in my family until my paternal grandmother went on a lineage kick sometime after I reached adulthood. What I recall about that day in first grade was my feeling of dread, able to be worked into a frenzy as my peers rattled off relationships with distant lands. I had lots of time to stoke that knot of inferiority, too, since my last name began with W and we were seated alphabetically. Just plain American? Not a single kid in class had made that claim. How dumb. By the time she reached me, I blurted out the only nationality I could think of whose flag hadn't already been planted in the dingy linoleum floor.

"I'm half Russian."

In a time when the Iron Curtain still remained firmly closed between our world and the U.S.S.R., in a time when nasty epitaphs about those people left mouths at dinner tables as soon as the amens were finished, my claim was not met with overwhelming approval but with silence. I remember looking at the Cherokee kid a couple seats over and thinking, "At least I'm original," before wanting the floor to open and swallow me. If only I'd known then how much Native American blood he and I shared, I might have felt differently. Since then, I have tried, not always meeting with exceptional success, to make sure my children know their roots. 

Roots give us the prologue of our narratives, though it will be yet our bodies crafting our songs, our branches the epilogues of how future's winds scattered our seeds toward fortune or calamity. Roots give us the strength and agility to dance with Tomorrow's vagaries and sleep with Yesterday's ghosts. Roots are the bloodlines of our humanity.

I've often laughed as I told my little "I'm Russian" ditty, just a marginal side note to the story of Stephanie. Now, having finished The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez before the sun woke today, I remember this piece of my past a little differently. Alma - the most believable heroine I've met in a long time - and I share a number of traits in common (though perhaps not so many as Celia and I), despite my rather obvious whiteness and my advanced degrees and my fertility and my employment. We are so alike, I spent long, long minutes weeping this morning when the thing I will not name (for I shall not ruin this beautiful book for anyone) happened. Yes, yes, Henriquez' language is beautiful, the scene perfectly depicted, the atmosphere raw and unavoidable, but none of these is why I wept. I wept, because I am Alma, and she is I.

As Celia says in this national treasure of literature, "It's amazing, isn't it, what parents will do for their children?"

Celia could not know the great truth of what she told Alma at that moment, but I do, and now, so does Alma. 

The Book of Unknown Americans  is, loosely, the story of how families and individuals from varying parts of Latin America arrived in Delaware to begin new lives, how Alma and her husband Arturo brought their daughter Maribel to Delaware so that she might heal after a traumatic brain injury, how people's lives become intwined in so-often ordinary ways. This book rides the waves of life, like all of us do, the waves of economic caprice, like all of us do, the waves of love, like all of us do. The extraordinary beauty of The Book of Unknown Americans lies in Henriquez' language, in her ability to show us why we keep putting one foot in front of the other every day (Arturo: "You think I don't breathe you and dream you every single day of my life?"), and in the faces and hands and hearts of the people who populate Fito's apartment building, the people Henriquez chose to knit into a family. Those who read The Book of Unknown Americans will recognize instantly two things: 1) how fortunate they are to be made part of this family, and 2) the obligation being part of that family confers to not look away from their pain; it's ours now, too.

On the back cover of The Book of Unknown Americans  a snippet from the Minneapolis Star Tribune's review states, "A remarkable novel that every American should read." I cannot agree more. On Monday, I'll be passing my copy along to the president of my college, a man I know shares a deep and abiding sense of duende for the Hispanic-Americans among us - documented and not - we do not distinguish, for how can we with any honor and integrity of our own? He will love this book as I have. He will see himself in Arturo, in Rafa, in Mayor and Micho - who broke my heart in places I thought long ago beyond more destruction. And then he will pass this book along to someone else. I will recommend The Book of Unknown Americans to my eldest daughter, who teaches second grade in a Title I exceptionally high need school where most children aren't struggling inner city African American children but migrant Latino kids whose parents want their children to have a better life but who are terrified to attend parent-teacher conferences because they don't have even fundamental English skills to talk to the teachers. (As an aside, my daughter's principal was just awarded Principal of the Year this week for his truly tireless work on behalf of these unknown Americans.) I have already recommended this book to all of my students this term, and if 10% of them read it - some of whom are the products of these unknown Americans - I will have achieved something remarkable.

Henriquez is marked. As a writer. Her talent exists beyond the letter, word, and spirit of language. In the very best moments of Gabriel García Márquez, Laura Esquivel, (my beloved poet) Pablo Neruda, and even Borjes and Fuentes rise and continue to rise on two simple acts we, as writers, ignore at our stories' peril: writing our humanity and ignor(ance) of convention. Henriquez is marked by these two on every single page. It isn't contrived narrative or poor dialogue that make us lay down a book before its completion but affected emotion and slavish dedication to genre and formulaic convention. Nothing in The Book of Unknown Americans is contrived. Every moment, narrative and engaged, is authentic and human in the ways of her predecessors (and reminds me why I started my undergraduate career lo those many years ago as a Spanish literature major). Further, this novel defies conventional genre description, and why should it not? Like Alma and Arturo's daughter Maribel, why shouldn't The Book of Unknown Americans just be itself? It is perfect just as it is.

Go. Read this book. You are incomplete until you do.


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