As we inch closer to Independence Day, there is one song that comes to mind: “America” by Neil Diamond. It is, after all, an iconic anthem of our nation, our people, and the lives we share: “Everywhere around the world / They’re coming to America / Got a dream to take them there / They’re coming to America / Got a dream they’ve come to share / They’re coming to America.” During a time of remembrance and celebration, Cristina Henríquez, author of “The World in Half,” returns to our shelves with her second novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans.”
The novel opens following a tragic accident — one that leaves beautifully bright teenager Maribel Rivera forever changed. Having sustained a traumatic brain injury, Maribel has gone from outgoing and talkative to nearly mute. To make matters worse, in their homeland of Pátzcuaro, Mexico, limited resources and a lack of medical options force her parents, Alma and Arturo Rivera, to take matters into their own hands. After failing to find alternatives to assist their daughter’s condition, Alma and Arturo make the difficult but necessary decision to relocate to the United States for the sake of Maribel.
Upon entering the U.S., the Rivera family finds solace in Delaware, where they move into a community rich with Latino cultural. Finding their niche, Alma and Arturo receive help from fellow immigrants: “We had been planning our life here for so long. Filling out papers, hoping, praying, waiting. We had all of our dreams pinned on this place, but the pin was thin and delicate and it was too soon to tell whether it was stronger than it looked or whether, in the end, it wasn’t going to hold much of anything at all.”
As demonstrated in the passage above, Henríquez paints a brilliant and deeply difficult picture — one that many immigrants face daily — of the journey to become an American. In Maribel’s case, her parents moved stateside to advocate for her welfare following her accident. It is their hope that in the process of becoming legal citizens, Maribel will be able to receive the best medical and educational services.
While the novel’s primary focus is on Maribel, Alma and Arturo provide deeply empathetic perspectives in their fight to obtain the best life for their daughter. Through their unending support, Maribel also begins to navigate her way through this new world, therein meeting fellow community tenant, Mayor Toro, a Panamanian immigrant. As their friendship begins to blossom, so too does the love they share for each other.
Henríquez develops a simple, yet striking plot in which readers follow the lives of one passionate family’s journey from Mexico across the United States in search of hope. What they find is all that much more inspiring. In overcoming devastation and adversity, the characters demonstrate that life can be restored with community and love.
‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henríquez Rating: W W W W