ShareThis Page

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

| 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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.