Excerpted from The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez. Copyright © 2014 by Cristina Henriquez. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“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. How does Alma’s perspective in the novel’s first chapter illustrate her and her family’s hopes for their new life in America? Take another look at her statement after the trip to the gas station: “The three of us started toward the road, doubling back in the direction from which we had come, heading toward home” (11). What are the meanings of “home” here, and how does this scene show how America meets and differs from the Riveras’ expectations of it?
2. Mayor describes how he’s bullied at school and his general feelings of not fitting in. How do you think this draws him to Maribel? What do they have in common that perhaps those around them, including their parents, cannot see on the surface?
3. How is the scene where the Riveras sit down for a dinner of oatmeal a turning point for the family and for the book? Discuss the role of food in the novel, especially how it evokes memories of home and establishes a sense of community. Are there any other cultural values or traditions that do the same thing?
4. What are some key differences in the way that the women in the novel respond to challenges of assimilation compared to the men? How does Alma’s point of view highlight these differences?
5. What brings Alma and Celia together as neighbors and friends, and how does their relationship change by the end of the book?
6. What are some of the signs throughout the novel that Maribel is getting better? Consider the scene in the pizza restaurant in particular, and her response to Alma’s joke. How does laughter here, and in other places in the book, evoke feelings of nostalgia and change?
7. How does Alma’s lingering guilt about Maribel’s accident affect her choices and interactions when she’s in America? Do you think that she still feels this way by the end of the book? What does she have to do, and realize within herself, to move beyond her feelings?
8. Do other characters besides Alma struggle with guilt? How does this emotion echo throughout the book, even among the varying narrators/voices?
9. How would you describe the atmosphere of the impromptu Christmas party in the Toros’ apartment (p. 137)? What brings the residents of the building together, as a group and in more intimate settings? Why do you think Cristina Henríquez brought all the characters together during this particular holiday?
10. Discuss Quisqueya’s role in what happens to Mayor and Maribel. Without her intervention, how might have their relationship, and ultimately the novel, ended differently?
11. How does Garrett cast a threatening shadow over several characters’ thoughts and actions? Did your opinion of him change after you learned about his home environment? How much blame can, or did, you ascribe to him for what happens to Arturo?
12. How does the Toros’ buying a car influence the course of events in the novel? What does the car mean for Rafael and Mayor individually and for their father-son relationship?
13. Was Alma’s decision to return to Mexico with Maribel the best one? Were there alternatives, or did their departure seem inevitable to you?
14. Alma and Mayor are the primary narrators of the book, yet they have very different voices and perspectives. How does pairing these points of view affect the telling of this story, even as they are punctuated by the voices of the neighbors in Redwood Apartments? And how does the chorus of voices affect this main story and pose larger questions of immigration and the Latino experience in the United States?
15. Were you surprised that the book takes place in Newark, Delaware, rather than in the larger Latin American communities of Florida, New York, Texas, or California? What does this setting suggest about immigrant families like the Riveras and the Toros across the country? Do you feel differently about the immigration debate now raging in the United States after reading this book?
16. Do you, the members of your family, or your friends have stories of moving to another country to start a new life? Did any of the stories in the novel resonate with those you know?
17. How does the final chapter, told in Arturo’s voice, influence your understanding of what he felt about America? What do you make of how he ends his narrative, “I loved this country,” and that it is the last line of the book (286)?