The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez is a story about immigrants. The focus is on Arturo, Alma, and their daughter Maribel, here on an H1B visa for work at a mushroom factory in Delaware. Their real reason was to enroll Maribel in a school with a good program for students with special needs. Maribel had been their perfect light of their lives until a fall and a blow to her head had erased many of her memories, skills and emotions. They want their daughter back and hope for miracles in America.
A neighbor boy, Mayor, also an immigrant, here with his parents who have come to escape the devastated economy and infrastructure after the invasion of Panama. He falls for Maribel and in many ways, is better able to communicate with Maribel than most. While Alma and Arturo are friends with Mayor’s parents and are comfortable and approving of their friendship, that ends when a gossiping, busybody neighbor reports seeing them kissing. Grounded!
Well, Mayor seems to always be grounded, but now they are not allowed to see each other. Maribel’s family even starts going to a different mass to avoid seeing them.
There are many other immigrants whose stories are part of The Book of Unknown Americans. What is clear from the stories is what is clear from all of our immigrant history, immigrants are self-selected for ambition, drive and grit. They come to work, they work hard and are an influx of vigor into the national bloodstream. While Henríquez does not ask the question, one has to wonder if America’s economic powerhouse, innovation in industry and creativity is not the result of a population that is not just self-selected for ambition, with a culture constantly reinforced by ambitious immigrants. No, they don’t send us their most unwanted people: they lose the people they need the most, the ambitious, the risk-takers, the movers and doers who build an economy and a nation. They are a boon to us.
The Book of Unknown Americans was chosen for Everybody Reads 2016. I was intrigued and tempted by the free copy at the library but did not read it quickly enough to be reading at the same time as everybody. I kind of think that was a good thing because I did not like it as much as I should have. It was not a bad book. It had an interesting story and I cared enough about the people to have strong opinions about the end, but it was nothing like I hoped it would be considering it was chosen for such an ambitious project.
I feel guilty that I do not love The Book of Unknown Americans. It is a book with a strong message with which I absolutely agree. It is also a message that people need to hear more often during this awful year of anti-immigrant hate- and fear-mongering. However, I thought the story was heavy-handed. The vignettes of many other people felt intrusive and moralistic, like an After School Special.
In fact, the book felt like it was written for an After School Special. It felt like it was written to push an agenda rather than tell a story and even though I agree with the agenda, it does not make it any less clunky. However, it was widely loved by many people, most people in fact and I am a grouchy curmudgeon, obviously.