No story is as deserving of an oral history as the immigrant’s tale; even the quietest one is, in its own way, epic. Something drives a family or individual out of the country they know, they make a sometimes-perilous journey to an unfamiliar land, and upon arriving the dangers—both real and imagined—seem even more insurmountable. Leo Tolstoy famously said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” But the immigrant’s story actually blends both of those archetypes into one almighty Voltron of storytelling, which is maybe why Studs Terkel included so many expats throughout his volumes of oral history.
Chicago author Cristina Henríquez (The World in Half) borrows both the epic scope and the immediacy of oral history for her second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf), which revolves around two members of immigrant families, both living in the same Wilmington, Delaware, apartment building. Alma Rivera tells the story of her family, in particular, how she and her husband, Arturo, moved with their teenage daughter, Maribel, from Pátzcuaro, in Mexico. The Riveras have come to the U.S. legally, Arturo sponsored by a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania. Maribel has recentlysuffered a traumatic brain injury, and Alma and Arturo have homed in on a special-needs school nearby, pursuing Maribel’s admission to it with a steadfastness that would make most military operations seem dilletantish.
In their new apartment building is Mayor Toro, youngest son of Celia and Rafael, two Panamanians now living as naturalized U.S. citizens. Mayor lives in the shadow of his brother, Enrique, a high-school soccer star now playing for the University of Maryland. Where Enrique was a magnet for attention and affection, Mayor has only one friend, and his soccer skills are on par with, say, those of the author of this review. Where Alma’s voice is cautious and considered, Mayor’s teenage version of events is frenetic, though mature for his age.
Celia and Alma become fast friends, the former becoming Alma’s sherpa through this new terrain. When Mayor and Maribel meet, on the other hand, there’s no chemistry, no potential: Maribel’s beauty puts Mayor on his heels, and Maribel’s injury impedes conversation. But the teens’ murky potential actually becomes the force that draws them together. Maribel’s parents fret over her future—Will she recover? Will she return to who she was before the accident? Similarly, Celia and Rafael have no clear sense of who Mayor is shaping up to be: unlike Enrique, he’s unathletic, unpopular, and a mystery to his father.
Mayor and Maribel’s initially innocent friendship is forever played against the tense strings of their parents’ anxieties. Shortly after the Riveras’ arrival, a menacing American teen named Garrett has started harassing Maribel, moving Alma’s threat alert from orange to red; she insists on watching Maribel leave the family’s apartment and walk with Mayor to his. Both begin to strain against the short leash, just as both Rafael and Arturo find themselves at the whims of their American bosses.
The figure of Garrett is one that darkens Alma’s outlook, and for all his ugliness he provides an elegant symbol for white American privilege: while Maribel and Mayor feel powerless over their own lives—and as Alma fails to control Maribel’s destiny—the American boy is able to, on a whim and with no sense of consequence, reign over their lives. Even legal immigrants and naturalized citizens face an insecurity that Garrett, in one particularly nerve-racking scene where he menaces Alma and instructs her to “go home,” will never know.
The final crashing together of all of these forces is devastating, as is the deftness with which Henríquez handles both the dramatic conclusion and the aftershocks. (Yes, I cried.) The book’s structure contributes greatly to the emotional impact: Hearing the stories told in Alma’s and Mayor’s own voices brings us inextricably close to them. Dividing their tales is a chorus of immigrant voices, short passages in which other inhabitants of the building tell their stories. The effect is that of both bridge and ballast: the stories occasionally connect with the main narrative, but more often they enrich the experience with their depictions of the delicate line between heartache and triumph.
Henríquez, it should be said, is also a world-class stylist. When Maribel laughs for the first time in the year since her injury, Alma describes the sound as “Light and crystalline. Thin glass bubbles of laughter.” Mayor, who has lived in America since he was an infant but has been told that Panama is in his bones, sums up the feelings of just about every member of that immigrant chorus: “I felt more American than anything. . . . The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.”