Arturo and Alma Rivera come to the United States from their home in Mexico hoping to get help for their only daughter, Maribel, who has intellectual and social disabilities since a traumatic brain injury a year earlier. Arturo takes a job harvesting mushrooms so Maribel can attend a special school in Delaware. The family has little in the way of resources but makes do as well as possible for the teen’s sake.
In their new apartment complex, they are surrounded by other immigrants, from a variety of countries and different situations. Rafael and Celia Toro, longer-established immigrants from Panama, befriend the Riveras, and their younger son, Mayor, eventually gets to know Maribel. At first, he is drawn by Maribel’s striking beauty, and then he is put off by her disability, but when Maribel patiently listens to him and he likewise pays attention to her, they develop a relationship that seems to be good for both of them.
Meanwhile, a troublemaker from Mayor’s school trains his eye on the lovely Maribel, and a tough economic climate threatens work and finances for the Riveras and the Toros. A new place, some unwelcoming natives, and an unfamiliar language make life even more challenging for Arturo and Alma. Old burdens of guilt and worry then make things even tougher. Their life is so precariously balanced that any small problem threatens to topple them.
The Book of Unknown Americans examines life in America today from the points of view of various immigrants, primarily the Toros and Riveras, but it also gives short insights into the backgrounds, aspirations, and overall lives of others living in the apartment complex of the story. Each is a reminder that “immigrants” aren’t all alike, aren’t all from the same country, don’t all have the same needs or problems; they are people with different interests, different paths, different personal issues. But they all want to feel at home; they all want to be accepted for who they are, for who they are trying to become.
Cristina Henríquez’s prose is lovely and vivid and her story powerful, immediate. It’s a reminder that books allow us to step into others’ shoes for at least a little while and understand what others are going through.
Rated: High, for around 20 uses of strong language and other uses of milder language. There are a couple of non-detailed references to sexual assault, some scenes of kissing and a little more; there are several vulgar sexual references. Most are connected to the teen boy characters. There is also some reference to violence.