After crossing the Mexico-Texas border — after a bewildering 30-hour drive past strip malls and junk-food oases in the back seat of a red pickup truck that stinks of spent cigarettes and spilled fuel — a family arrives in Delaware. It is night. They turn onto a long gravel driveway and roll to a stop before a cinder-block building with rusted metal staircases. More than 2,000 miles from home, they emerge from a hurtling, inhospitable cocoon into a new, American life.
Arturo Rivera is the former owner of a construction company in Pátzcuaro, Mexico. His wife, Alma, is the love of his life, the doting mother of his only child. Until the devastating event that caused them to emigrate, they had no reason to leave their joy-filled paradise. They have come because Maribel, their beautiful 15-year-old daughter, suffered a brain injury when she fell from a ladder, and she has never been quite the same. They are sure that American experts can cure her. Sacrificing all former comforts, Arturo takes a menial job, picking mushrooms in the gloom of a darkened warehouse. Alma pits herself against a seemingly insurmountable language barrier to win their precious child whatever attention she can. Gradually, painstakingly, they make their way in a foreign land, placing Maribel in a school for children with special needs.
So begins “The Book of Unknown Americans,” a quiet, unassuming novel that ravels slowly, quickens without warning, spins into high drama and leaves you in thrall to its vivid characters and its author’s sure hand. Chicago writer Cristina Henríquez, whose father emigrated to the United States from Panama in the 1970s, has produced two earlier works — “Come Together, Fall Apart,” a collection of short stories, and “The World in Half,” a novel about a young woman’s search for her Hispanic roots — but this novel about the Riveras and their hastily cobbled American world is sure to bring Henríquez many more readers. Reminiscent of the chorus of voices that made Oscar Lewis’s “The Children of Sanchez” so memorable and Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” so profoundly humane, her tale about coming to America is a striking original.
The Riveras are not alone. The rank, hideous building to which they come harbors other immigrants with an array of American dreams. There are a busybody Venezuelan with two all-American sons and a fugitive unnerved by the horrors of Guatemala’s civil war. There are Puerto Ricans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Paraguayans. And then there are the Toros, who fled Panama City when the U.S. invasion left their neighborhood in rubble and its streets too dangerous to navigate. “Our hearts kept breaking each time we walked out the door,” says Celia Toro. The family “tried to give it time. They assumed conditions would improve. But the country was so ravaged that their hearts never stopped breaking. Eventually they sold almost everything they owned and used the money to buy plane tickets to somewhere else, somewhere better, which to them had always meant the United States.” Celia’s husband takes a job as a line cook in a Delaware diner. One of their sons, Enrique, lands a soccer scholarship to the University of Maryland. The younger one, Mayor — far less honed for American success — finds himself falling in love with the beautiful, damaged Maribel.
It’s no easy trick to pull a good story from the sea of immigrant narratives — endless sagas of acclimatization that glut the Hispanic American experience. Indeed, in recent years, Latino authors have turned their attentions elsewhere, focusing on stories that play out on other shores: Daniel Alarcón’s “At Night We Walk in Circles,” for instance, which takes place entirely in an unnamed Latin American country. Or Esmeralda Santiago’s “Conquistadora,” which moves between Spain and Puerto Rico. Or even Isabel Allende’s “Maya’s Notebook,” in which a troubled heroine is redeemed not by living in America but by going home to Chile. Unlike these, Henríquez’s novel adamantly returns us to the classic immigrant chronicle, the striver’s tale — a detailed account of a random, huddled mass in a two-story building, yearning to be free.
And so these freshly minted Americans live out their days in that cinder-block hive, sharing little more than language — each from a different country, each with a separate history, all struggling to stake a claim on unfamiliar terrain. “I want to be given the benefit of the doubt!” says a feisty young Mexican. “When I walk down the street . . . I want them to see a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family. . . . I wish just one of those people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man. . . . But none of them even want to try. We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?”
Eventually, the fragile, cognitively disordered Maribel returns Mayor’s love, but not before a complicated drama of fear is set in motion and every voice in this full-throated chorale is allowed to be heard. “The Book of Unknown Americans” is a deeply stirring story about a budding romance between two unlikely lovers, but it is also a ringing paean to love in general: to the love between man and wife, parent and child, outsider and newcomer, pilgrims and promised land. With a simple, unadorned prose that, in the end, rises to the level of poetry, Henríquez achieves the seemingly impossible: Without a trace of sentimentality, without an iota of self-indulgence or dogma, she tells us about coming to America.
In case we’ve forgotten: It all started this way.
Arana, former editor of Book World, is the author of “American Chica” and “Cellophane.” Her most recent book is the biography “Bolívar: American Liberator.”
OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS
By Cristina Henríquez
Knopf. 286 pp. $24.95