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American story built on immigrant tales

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If the soul of a country is in its people (and where else could it be?), then one of the defining qualities of the United States (and Canada) is that it is a nation of nations. The melting pot was a political idea, a prescription for one contingent's view of ideal citizenship, a slogan for, perhaps, racial harmony.

The historical and social reality, however, is more akin to a patchwork quilt, and The Book of Unknown Americans is a view of just one patch.

American author Cristina Henríquez's heartfelt sophomore novel takes place mostly in and around a Latin American neighbourhood -- an apartment building, specifically -- in Delaware. Its primary focus is two families: the Toros are Panamanian-American and have lived in the country for 17 years, while the Riveras are newly arrived from Mexico.

The Toros have a 16-year-old son still residing at home, living in the shadow of his brother, who is at Notre Dame on a soccer scholarship. The Riveras have only one daughter, beautiful but palpably absent as the result of a recent traumatic brain injury.

Although their stories are initially separate, the two families become intertwined as the teenagers fall in love. Like a miracle, the girl, Maribel, seems to begin finding her way back to herself in the presence of the insecure but earnest Mayor.

But there are complications. The love of the Riveras for their daughter is mixed with guilt, disappointment and a fear they will fail to protect her again. Mayor has a difficult time meeting his father's expectations as it is, and Maribel isn't exactly what he'd call girlfriend material.

These are good people, with flaws and demons, and it's clear a happy ending will be possible.

The story is told via a series of first-person narratives, switching viewpoints each chapter. Mayor is the primary storyteller for the Toros, while Alma, Maribel's mother, tells the story of the Riveras. Unusually, the intervening storylines are separated by brief bits of backstory from secondary or tertiary characters. These don't typically impinge on the main narrative directly; they're "why I came to America" stories, told in anywhere from two to eight pages. They include neighbours from the building who barely get more than a passing mention outside their own chapter, and more important characters, like Mayor's father.

It makes for an odd mix, and some of them aren't as well-integrated into the main story as they might be, though the theme is right on target: Why do people leave everything they know behind to come to America?

The Toros loved Panama and, seen through their eyes, it seems like the most beautiful place in the world. Yet war and strife destroyed any sense of security for that young family; they feared for their children's future, sacrificing all they had known to protect them.

The Riveras had a perfect life in their small Mexican town. They would have liked to have lived and died there, like their parents and grandparents before them. But after Maribel's accident, it seemed only in America would they find the help they needed for her to heal.

Stories of other building tenants -- from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua -- echo those of the Toros and Riveras, though each one is different. No one abandons their country because they don't love it enough, but because they love something else more. Often, though not always, that something else is their children.

This novel raises other questions, specifically about prejudice against the disabled as well as people of colour. But it's primarily about America's newest citizens: what are their dreams, what do they work so hard for and why have they come?

These are questions not everyone thinks to ask, perhaps assuming that anyone would rather live in America (or Canada) than elsewhere. But they're worth asking -- and it's worth hearing the different answers. In a nation of immigrants, understanding one's country must certainly include knowing their story.


Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 G6

History

Updated on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 7:27 AM CDT: Formatting.

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