Posted by : Deborah Takahashi Saturday, March 21, 2015

Plot Summary:
After a tragic accident, Arturo, Alma, and Maribel Rivera packed up their belongings and made their way to the United States. After months of waiting, a mound of paperwork, and a long journey, the Rivera's found themselves in the lovely state of Delaware, where Maribel could attend a special school called Evers. Life in Mexico was beautiful for the Rivera until the accident changed everything, especially the vibrant girl that used to be Maribel Rivera. Although Arturo and Alma gave up their prosperous life, and livelihood, their hope is to restore the daughter they thought they lost. When the Rivera's see their new home, it's not exactly the cozy home they knew back in Patzcuaro, Mexico. Despite not owning furniture, and other conveniences, Alma and Arturo are determined to make a better life for Maribel. What the Rivera's don't realize is that their entire apartment building is inhabited by a group of people who have similar stories and, as they get to know each other, take comfort knowing they are not alone in their struggles. In fact, when Alma and Maribel meet the Toro's, life was about to get more complicated and exciting when Mayor sees Maribel in The Dollar Store. In fact, for Mayor, it was love at first sight despite the fact that Maribel is different than the other girls from school. In this riveting and honest story told by eleven different voices, readers are invited to the lives of immigrants as the travel through the motions of leaving everything behind in pursuit of something better, even it the price is sometimes too heavy to bare. The ending will resonate with readers since all of us came from somewhere and realize the sacrifices that were made to give us the world they desperately wanted to experience.

Critical Evaluation:
My initial fear with this story is that it is told from eleven point of views. That's a lot of voices and stories to keep straight in my honest opinion. However, that is not the case with The Book of Unknown Americans. Henriquez is an incredible storyteller because every single voice and every single story was unique, inspiring, beautiful, and tragic. What seemed like a collection of vignettes, Henriquez managed to bring all of those stories full circle to create an incredible community and story. My absolute favorite scene was the impromptu Christmas party and I literally busted a gut when all of the neighbors, and the Riviera's, hear the song: "Feliz Navidad." Clearly, this was an American song because none of them had ever heard of it and talk about patronizing if everyone expects all Latin, Hispanic, and South American folks to know the song. This is just instance that make the book utterly amazing, but there are parts that really drove home for me because my own grandmother and family were interned at Manzanar. Arturo and Alma came to the United States to care for their daughter who was involved in a tragic accident. In many cases, a lot of people come to this country to seek out a better life for their children so this story isn't the first. However, their immigrating to the US was more than just finding a good school for their daughter: this story was about forgiveness and redemption. Alma and Arturo carried so much pain and grief over something they had no control over and I really do believe that is why people start over. For the Toro's, the had no choice to leave Panama, but the pain and the longing for Panama is what drives the wedge between Rafa and Celia. On the flip side, for the Maribel and Mayor, this move provided them the opportunity to feel love and accepted. There is so much going on with this story that it's impossible to cover every topic, but, let me assure, dear readers, this is an amazing story that will spark amazing conversation, especially with teens.

Information about the Author:
According to her website:
Cristina Henríquez is the author of The Book of Unknown AmericansThe World In Half, and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.
Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and AGNI along with the anthology This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers. 
Cristina’s non-fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Oxford American, and Preservation as well as in the anthologies State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Women Writers Reflect on the Candidate and What Her Campaign Meant. 
She was featured in Virginia Quarterly Review as one of “Fiction’s New Luminaries,” has been a guest on National Public Radio, and is a recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, a grant started by Sandra Cisneros in honor of her father.
Cristina earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Chicago.

Fiction, Teen Contemporary Fiction

Reading Level/Interest:
Grades 10 & up

Books Similar to Book of Unknown Americans:
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Awards & Recognition:

“Vivid . . . . Striking. . . . A ringing paean to love in general: to the love between man and wife, parent and child, outsider and newcomer, pilgrims and promised land.” —The Washington Post

“Powerful. . . . Moving. . . . [Henríquez has] myriad gifts as a writer.” —The New York Times
“Passionate, powerful. . . . 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.” —Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

“Gripping, memorable. . . . A novel that can both make you think and break your heart.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A remarkable novel that every American should read.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Unfailingly well written and entertaining. . . . [Henríquez’s] stories illuminate the lives behind the current debates about Latino immigration.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Lyrical. . . . This is a book about love, about how we seek to help those we love, sometimes with unforeseen and tragic consequences.” —The Dallas Morning News
“Powerful. . . Henríquez gives us unforgettable characters . . . whose resilience yields a most profound and unexpected kind of beauty.” —Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being
“There’s an aura of benevolence in these pages. . . . Henríquez’s feat is to make the reader feel at home amid these good, likable people.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Characters are as vivid as they are resilient. . . . [The] story is told from Alma and Mayor’s points of view, but their voices are interlaced with tales of dreams deferred from the other tenants.” —Elle
“A lovingly woven portrait of how friendships sustain people, how people support one another, and how people make a home in unlikely places. . . . Henríquez offers up stories we need to hear and lets us sit with her characters in communion and even friendship.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Unforgettable: an important story about family, community, and identity, told with elegance and compassion.” —Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins
 “Passionate.” —O, the Oprah Magazine
 “Henríquez distills the vast sea of immigrant stories into a small apartment building community in Delaware. . . . Through Henríquez’s unadorned prose, these immigrants’ struggles ring clear, their voices rising above that din of political debate.” —USA Today
“An exquisite and profound novel of love, longing, and the resilience of the human spirit. . . . [These characters] leave an indelible mark on the heart.” —Gilbert King, author of Devil in the Grove
 “Henríquez allows the characters to speak for themselves. . . . The politics of immigration, while never explicitly argued, remain subtly in play, as do more existential matters affecting immigrants, such as the mixed national and cultural allegiances and affiliations between the generations.” —Chicago Tribune
“Distinctively compassionate and original. . . . Extraordinary.” —Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishings
 “[Henríquez is] a world-class stylist.” —Chicago Reader
“Beautiful . . . Cristina Henríquez introduces us to . . . vibrant lives, to heartbreaking choices, to the tender beginnings of love, and to the humanity in every individual. Unforgettable.” —Esmeralda Santiago, author of Conquistadora 

{ 1 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. In “The Book of Unknown Americans”, Cristina Henriquez presents a moving, brilliantly written story of why individuals still seek the American Dream. Arturo Rivera sums this attitude up in the final chapter – “…Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or longing. Someplace will be better than here. And the only condition: if only I can get to that place.”


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Deborah Takahashi
Pasadena, CA, United States
My name is Deb and I am a Librarian who absolutely loves to read and recommend books to teen and tween readers. In this blog, you will find reviews on a variety resources ranging from books, movies, video games, and much more. Please feel free to leave any feedback, especially book recommendations!
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