Book Review: The Book of Unknown Americans

Possibly one of the most touching novels I've read in the last few years, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez tells the intertwining stories of several Hispanic and/or Latino families who have immigrated to the United States and are staying in the same apartment building. Some of the characters came seeking fame and wealth, while others came seeking hope. The central focus of the story is on a young girl named Maribel Rivera and a young boy named Mayor Toro. When Maribel nearly dies in a tragic accident, her parents give up everything they know and leave their home in Pátzcuaro, Mexico to come to America in search of treatment for Maribel's recovery. Mayor's parents left Panama when he was only a baby, so both he and his older brother have spent the majority of their life in the United States; but Mayor doesn't feel like he belongs anywhere. He's bullied at school and unable to live up to his father's expectations of being a superstar soccer player like his brother. The young teens find solace in each other, striking up a bond that changes everything for their two families, and the community around them.

The book alternates between first person narratives featuring the residents of Maribel and Mayor's apartment complex, all of whom share their experiences immigrating to the U.S. from Latin America. While we never get a first person account from Maribel, her story is told mostly through her mother, Alma, and Mayor's eyes. While the other characters' stories are not particularly relevant to the main storyline, they help set the tone and feel of the community. Admittedly, sometimes, I felt like skipping or rushing through the secondary characters' thoughts to get back to the plot, however, there were times I was moved by that character's story.

Dialogue between characters and thoughts of characters make it clear that the book is a commentary on the state of the U.S.'s policy on immigration. I've seen reviews from people who were bothered by this, but knowing people who have come to the U.S. from various places for various reasons, hearing true stories, and seeing these people navigate the politics of the U.S. daily, I find the book to be fairly spot on. It may be blunt in some places, but I don't think anything is over exaggerated (of course, I'm neither Hispanic, Latina, nor an immigrant so this assumption is something I can only verify through hearsay).

Overall, I found the book quite enjoyable and myself quite attached to the characters of Alma, Maribel, and Mayor. It is not a happy story, and while some passages made me smile, much of the book tugged at my heart leaving me a little sad. There is mild sexual language so I would recommend parents reading first to determine if they feel it is suitable for their child. Anyone who has never spoken with or heard about the experiences of someone who immigrated to the country or 1st generation Americans should definitely give this book a read. While I can not say for certain, as I am not the author, at the end of the book I definitely felt the author's target audience is those of us who have lived in the U.S. for generations. 'Twas a great read; I hope you will pick it up and enjoy.


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