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Review: 'The Book of Unknown Americans' just another teenage romance

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‘The Book of Unknown Americans'

Author: Cristina Henriquez

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 285 pages, $24.95

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Gregg Barrios
Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 2:27 p.m.

A dilapidated cinder-block apartment complex surrounded by a chain-link fence is the setting for Cristina Henriquez's second novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans.” What at first appears to be a no man's land is actually Delaware. Welcome to the United States, where every whistle stop has an immigrant story to tell.

The novel opens as the Riveras, a newly arrived Mexican family — Arturo, Alma and teenage daughter Maribel — are settling in. They made the journey north after Maribel suffered a brain injury. Mexican doctors saved her life, but the family left a successful construction business so she can attend special-education classes here.

Alma tells their story in the first person but never adequately explains why special-education services readily available in Mexico weren't a better option.

The Toro family — Rafael, Celia and son Mayor — left their native Panama after the 1989 U.S. invasion and are now naturalized citizens. Mayor, who narrates his family's story, has mixed emotions about their move to the States.

After 15 years here, the Toros still live in the same apartment. Rafael has barely advanced from busboy to line cook at a roadside diner on the brink of closing.

When teenage Mayor becomes smitten with Maribel, their story takes center stage. Both families forbid Mayor from seeing fragile Maribel. In an act of bravado, he “steals away” Maribel from her special-education classes to prove his love. But Maribel isn't given a first-person voice, so we never fully comprehend her situation or her reactions.

Later, when Arturo stands to lose his job and visa, Alma is quick to defend their place in the immigration food chain: “We're not like the rest of them. ... The ones they talk about.”

Readers expecting to find the faces and voices of unaccompanied children crossing our borders or the DREAM Act minors brought here by undocumented parents might look elsewhere.

Gregg Barrios is a staff writer for Newsday.

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