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The Book of Unknown Americans
Cover of The Book of Unknown Americans
The Book of Unknown Americans
A novel
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"A triumph of storytelling. Henríquez pulls us into the lives of her characters with such mastery that we hang on to them just as fiercely as they hang on to one another and their dreams. This...
"A triumph of storytelling. Henríquez pulls us into the lives of her characters with such mastery that we hang on to them just as fiercely as they hang on to one another and their dreams. This...
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Description-

  • "A triumph of storytelling. Henríquez pulls us into the lives of her characters with such mastery that we hang on to them just as fiercely as they hang on to one another and their dreams. This passionate, powerful novel will stay with you long after you've turned the final page." --Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

    A boy and a girl who fall in love. Two families whose hopes collide with destiny. An extraordinary novel that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be American.

    Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she'll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.

    When Mayor Toro, whose family is from Panama, sees Maribel in a Dollar Tree store, it is love at first sight. It's also the beginning of a friendship between the Rivera and Toro families, whose web of guilt and love and responsibility is at this novel's core.

    Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America. Their journeys and their voices will inspire you, surprise you, and break your heart.

    Suspenseful, wry and immediate, rich in spirit and humanity, The Book of Unknown Americans is a work of rare force and originality.

    This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.

Excerpts-

  • From the book

    Mayor
    We heard they were from México.
    "Definitely," my mom said, staring at them through our front window as they moved in. "Look at how short they are." She let the curtain fall back in place and walked to the kitchen, wiping her hands on the dish towel slung over her shoulder.
    I looked, but all I saw was three people moving through the dark, carrying stuff from a pickup truck to unit 2D. They cut across the headlights of the truck a few times, and I made out their faces, but only long enough to see a mom, a dad, and a girl about my age.
    "So?" my dad asked when I joined him and my mom at the dinner table.
    "I couldn't really see anything," I said.
    "Do they have a car?"
    I shook my head. "The truck's just dropping them off, I think."
    My dad sawed off a piece of chicken and stuffed it in his mouth. "Do they have a lot of things?" he asked.
    "It didn't seem like it."
    "Good," my dad said. "Maybe they are like us, then."
    We heard from Quisqueya Solís that their last name was Rivera.
    "And they're legal," she reported to my mom over coffee one afternoon. "All of them have visas."
    "How do you know?" my mom asked.
    "That's what Nelia told me. She heard it from Fito. Apparently the mushroom farm is sponsoring them."
    "Of course," my mom said.
    I was in the living room, eavesdropping, even though I was supposed to be doing my geometry homework.
    "Well," my mom went on, clearing her throat, "it will be nice to have another family in the building. They'll be a good addition."
    Quisqueya took a quick look at me before turning back to my mom and hunching over her coffee mug. "Except . . . ," she said.
    My mom leaned forward. "What?"
    Quisqueya said, "The girl . . ." She looked at me again.
    My mom peered over Quisqueya's shoulder. "Mayor, are you listening to us?"
    I tried to act surprised. "Huh? Me?"
    My mom knew me too well, though. She shook her head at Quisqueya to signal that whatever Quisqueya was going to say, she'd better save it if she didn't want me to hear it.
    "Bueno, we don't need to talk about it, then," Quisqueya said. "You'll see for yourself eventually, I'm sure."
    My mom narrowed her eyes, but instead of pressing, she sat back in her chair and said loudly, "Well." And then, "More coffee?"


    We heard a lot of things, but who knew how much of it was true? It didn't take long before the details about the Riversa began to seem far- fetched. They had tried to come into the
    United States once before but had been turned back. They were only staying for a few weeks. They were working undercover for the Department of Homeland Security. They were personal friends with the governor. They were running a safe house for illegals. They had connections to a Mexican narco ring. They were loaded. They were poor. They were traveling with the circus.
    I tuned it all out after a while. School had started two weeks earlier, and even though I had told myself that this would be the year the other kids stopped picking on me, the year that I actually fi t in for once in my life, things already weren't going exactly as planned. During the first week of school, I was in the locker room, changing into my gym shorts, when Julius Olsen tucked his hands into his armpits and started flapping his arms like wings. "Bwwaak!" he said, looking at me. I ignored...

About the Author-

  • Cristina Henríquez is the author of the story collection Come Together, Fall Apart, which was a New York Times Editors' Choice selection, and the novel The World in Half. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The American Scholar, Glimmer Train, Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, AGNI, and Oxford American, as well as in various anthologies. She lives in Illinois.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 24, 2014
    In Henríquez’s latest, Arturo and Alma Rivera move from Pátzcuaro, Mexico, to Delaware in hopes of securing a good education for their beautiful teenage daughter, Maribel, who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Alone, isolated by language and poverty, the Riveras struggle to get by: Arturo works 10 hours a day at a mushroom farm, while Alma worries about predatory men taking advantage of her daughter. In the same apartment building lives Mayor Toro, the misfit son of Panamanian immigrants, who soon falls in love with Maribel. The budding romance, however, threatens to tear their families apart. Meanwhile, Henríquez (The World in Half) gives space to the voices of other immigrants—men and women who have fled their South American and Central American homes to make a better life in a country that, as often as not, refuses to acknowledge their existence. Evoking a profound sense of hope, Henríquez delivers a moving account of those who will do anything to build a future for their children—even if it means confronting the fear and alienation lurking behind the American dream. Agent: Julie Barer, Barer Literary.

  • Kirkus

    May 1, 2014
    A family from Mexico settles in Delaware and strives to repair emotional and physical wounds in Henriquez's dramatic page-turner.The author's third book of fiction (Come Together, Fall Apart, 2006; The World in Half, 2009) opens with the arrival of Arturo and Alma Rivera, who have brought their teenage daughter, Maribel, to the U.S. in the hope of helping her recover from a head injury she sustained in a fall. Their neighbors Rafael and Celia Toro came from Panama years earlier, and their teenage son, Mayor, takes quickly to Maribel. The pair's relationship is prone to gossip and misinterpretation: People think Maribel is dumber than she is and that Mayor is more predatory than he is. In this way, Henriquez suggests, they represent the immigrant experience in miniature. The novel alternates narrators among members of the Rivera and Toro families, as well as other immigrant neighbors, and their stories stress that their individual experiences can't be reduced to types or statistics; the shorter interludes have the realist detail, candor and potency of oral history. Life is a grind for both families: Arturo works at a mushroom farm, Rafael is a short-order cook, and Alma strains to understand the particulars of everyday American life (bus schedules, grocery shopping, Maribel's schooling). But Henriquez emphasizes their positivity in a new country, at least until trouble arrives in the form of a prejudiced local boy. That plot complication shades toward melodrama, giving the closing pages a rush but diminishing what Henriquez is best at: capturing the way immigrant life is often an accrual of small victories in the face of a thousand cuts and how ad hoc support systems form to help new arrivals get by.A smartly observed tale of immigrant life that cannily balances its optimistic tone with straight talk.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    January 1, 2014

    In this latest from the author of The World in Half, the Mexican Rivera family moves to Delaware so that their brain-damaged daughter, Maribel, can attend a special school. Sharing the same neighborhood is the Panamanian Toro family, whose younger son, Mayor, becomes enamored of Maribel. As the bulk of the narrative shifts between Alma, Maribel's mother, and Mayor, the story unwinds into a Romeo and Juliet reenactment, with both families opposing the relationship, and tragedy the unexpected result. Henriquez does a spectacular job of creating highly believable characters and poignant scenarios: the guilt that wracks Alma because of the accident that rendered Maribel mentally disabled, the social and educational frustrations of a challenged adolescent, Mayor's budding teenage psyche, the inconsolable grief upon suddenly losing a spouse, and, above all, the experience of adjusting to a new culture and way of life. Regularly inserted is a series of testimonials by other participants, which, though thematically important, interrupts the story's otherwise smooth flow. VERDICT A well-written coming-of-age story set among "unknown Americans," ostensibly Hispanic but in many ways any family involved in similar circumstances regardless of ethnicity.--Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., Dublin, OH

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times "Timely . . . powerful . . . genuinely moving . . . a chronicle of a beautiful Mexican teenager named Maribel Rivera and her admiring friend and neighbor, Mayor Toro. Maribel and Mayor's star-crossed love lends this novel an emotional urgency; the story of their families gives us a visceral sense of the magnetic allure of America, and the gaps so many immigrants find here between expectations and reality. In slowly revealing the back stories behind [their] arrival in America and what they have at stake in remaining here, Henríquez gives us an intimate understanding of the sense of dislocation they experience almost daily, belonging neither here nor there, caught on the margins of the past and the future. She conveys the homesickness they feel--missing not just family and friends but also the heat and light and rhythms of the places they left behind--and their awareness of the fragility of even their most ordinary dreams of safety. The story encapsulate[s] the promises and...
  • Korina Lopez, USA Today "Henríquez distills the vast sea of immigrant stories into a small apartment building community in Delaware. At the center are two star-crossed teens, Mayor and Maribel . . . Through their friendship and budding romance, Mayor becomes a hero, protecting Maribel from a dangerous boy. He starts to bring her out of her shell [and] Maribel begins to reconnect with her former self. Their doomed love is just one of the Romeo & Juliet twists in the book--Henríquez threads that theme through the relationships between parents and their children, husbands and wives, the immigrant community with their home countries and their new one . . . Through her unadorned prose, these struggles ring clear, voices rising above the din of political debate."

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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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