Newark, Delaware is the unspectacular setting of Cristina Henríquez’ novel The Book of Unknown Americans. A small, average, American city that could be just around the corner from where you live. A wonderful choice of setting for a novel full of immigrant tales that stand for so many real immigrant tales out there. Cristina Henríquez knows how to create setting. One of my favorite scenes happens right at the beginning, when the Riveras walk down the main road trying to find a supermarket and finally have to buy groceries at the gas station instead. Within less than a page, Ms Henríquez manages to create the perfect US-American scenery, at least as it appears to strangers.
The Book of Unknown Americans focuses on the story of Maribel and Mayor (a boy from Panama) but it is alternately told from the viewpoints of Mayor and Maribel’s mother Alma. Alma is a very powerful character. She knows and loves her daughter the way only a mother does. In addition to that, Alma is the one who suggested emigrating to the United States and now she gives the reader the chance to live through all her doubts and worries. Interspersed between Mayor and Alma’s accounts, you will find an abundance of secondary characters telling their own stories. These little biographies fit in perfectly and help to understand the secondary characters’ personalities.
Like many other novels dealing with the topic of immigration, The Book of Unknown Americans starts out with the Riveras’ arrival in the United States, but where Ms Henríquez takes it from there is somewhere a little different. This book might not nearly sum up all the varying immigrant biographies out there, but it can give us a taste of what it can be like to come to a new country where most people will be prejudiced against you. The Book of Unknown Americans tells a story full of hopes and dreams and when I think of it, I’m still getting goosebumps. Cristina Henríquez wrote a novel that takes time to digest and you won’t and shouldn’t forget about it all too soon. The Book of Unknown Americans is an important book, a book that, in my opinion, should become an obligatory part of the US American high-school curriculum. Read it!