The Book Of Unknown Americans Summary

Cristina Henríquez

The Book Of Unknown Americans

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The Book Of Unknown Americans Summary

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez is not simply a novel about immigration. It’s also a novel about love, fear, and hate. It’s a novel about the Latino experience in America. The title derives from the idea that many Americans ignore Latinos out of fear or prejudice and are therefore blind to the plights faced by Latinos and the difficulties of immigration. While the main characters are Maribel Rivera—from Mexico—and Mayor Toro—from Panama—there are multiple characters whose stories are told throughout the novel.

The novel begins with Maribel and her parents, Arturo and Alma, arriving in Wilmington, Delaware. They have legally immigrated to the United States, but not for reasons readers may assume. They are not economic refugees seeking the financial aspect of the American Dream. In fact, they owned property in Mexico and Arturo managed a successful business. What draws them to America is instead educational opportunities for Maribel. Fifteen-year-old Maribel suffered an accident at her father’s construction job site. A fall from a ladder led to a brain injury that subsequently stalled her development. Maribel’s parents hope that special education opportunities in America will help her regain lost ground at school.

Shortly after arriving in Wilmington, Maribel and her parents move into the Redwood Apartments, which are above an old auto body shop. It’s there that they meet other Latino immigrants, including the Toro family. The Toros are American citizens and have a deep-seated love for America. This family of four includes Rafael, Celia, and their two sons Enrique and Mayor. Enrique doesn’t live at the Redwood Apartments because he is away at college, but Mayor is the same age as Maribel and a sophomore in high school.

Mayor immediately begins to harbor romantic feelings for Maribel. He’s attracted by her beauty and shows patience regarding her learning disabilities. Meanwhile, Maribel is fond of another character—Garrett Miller. Garrett is a bully, and tries to molest Maribel. Thankfully for Maribel, Garrett is stopped by Alma. Even though Alma stops Garrett, she keeps quiet about what happened, believing she can handle the situation herself. Complicating matters is Alma’s guilt over Maribel’s accident. It was Alma who had been holding the ladder when Maribel fell.

After realizing the differences between both Mayor and Garrett, Maribel falls in love with Mayor because he’s the only one who really sees her. She respects his ability to see her as a person and not someone to be pitied or placated. Meanwhile, Maribel is improving in school, thanks to the special education program and Mayor’s help. The two grow closer, and are spied making out in Mayor’s father’s car. Maribel’s parents find out and forbid them seeing one another.

Despite this, Mayor and Maribel cut school together to visit the ocean. On their way home, they’re forced to pull over because a snowstorm makes it impossible to continue on. Both Maribel and Mayor fall asleep in the car, and continue sleeping until the early morning hours. Their long absence sets a chain of events in motion. Alma believes that it’s Garrett keeping Maribel out late. When Arturo finds out about this, he goes to look for Garrett, only to be shot by Garrett’s father.

Mayor and Maribel return home and Mayor’s father takes them to the hospital. Arturo dies from the gunshot wound that same night. Within a few days, Alma and Maribel leave the United States and return to Mexico.

A major theme in The Book of Unknown Americans is the American Dream—the idea that immigrants can find a better life for their family and most importantly, their children, in America. The American Dream is connected to the broader concept that one can be successful by working hard. Arturo embodies this theme because he goes from managing a successful company and owning land in Mexico to being a mushroom farmer in America, all to give his daughter a chance at a better education. Family is another important theme. The same example emphasizes the importance of family.

Another set of themes go hand-in-hand: immigration, prejudice, and “unknown” Americans. Fear of the unknown—of the Other—is a driving force in prejudice against immigrants and the idea that those immigrants are unknown to native-born Americans. The point of this story is to remove the veil of fear that might otherwise conceal these immigrants, and show them for what they really are: people just like any other American seeking the American Dream.

Henriquez’s father was an immigrant. His decision to come to America led to her attending both Northwestern University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The Book of Unknown Americans was her second novel; she has also been published in The New Yorker.