'The Book of Unknown Americans' tells immigrant tale

Cristina Henriquez, author of "The Book of Unknown

Cristina Henriquez, author of "The Book of Unknown Americans" (Knopf, June 2014). (Credit: Michael Lionstar)

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THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS, by Cristina Henriquez. Alfred A. Knopf, 285 pp., $24.95.

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 USA, 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 behind 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. Or how, during a recession, they jumped to the front of the immigration line to secure a visa.

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 United States: "I pointed out how backwards it was to have fled to the nation that had driven them out of theirs, but they never copped to the irony of it."

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. Only after a relative in Panama sends money can the family finally afford a used car.

When teenage Mayor becomes smitten with Maribel, their story takes center stage. Both families forbid Mayor from seeing fragile Maribel after a neighbor spots them kissing in a parked car. 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. Or how in seven months, she has gone from barely responsive to speaking in full sentences.

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."

For Henriquez, the Toros and the Riveras who come to this country legally are "the unknown Americans." The millions who come without papers are not. 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.

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