Booked Up

Lives of the Immigrants

Cristina Henriquez’s new novel offers poignant stories of newcomers and those who resent them.

By - Aug 7th, 2014 03:16 pm
Cristina Henriquez

Cristina Henriquez

We are a nation of immigrants. This oft-repeated assertion is one of the ironic underpinnings of this week’s recommended reading: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. The author was in town this week and I urge you to read her new novel. In a time of border crisis, this book is both instructive and inspirational.

It is also a truism that the first immigrants will resent those who come after them, and this book is a moving demonstration of the passions unleashed by displacement and xenophobia. Structured in a series of short chapters, each character presents his or her story, often as a monologue. As we become familiar with each autobiography, we begin to see the interconnections and the parallels.

Dealing primarily with the inhabitants in an immigrant apartment house in Delaware, The Book of Unknown Americans presents an insider’s view of the struggles of people who leave their homelands for seeking new beginnings in America. Most of the characters are legal, but they experience the prejudice that confronts all strangers in our culture.

Alma and Arturo come from Mexico, hoping to find rehabilitation for their brain-damaged daughter, Maribel. They find hope, but also insult and injury. Arturo, highly-skilled in his own country, is reduced to picking mushrooms in dark warehouses for ten hour shifts. Alma is left to navigate the strange new country with little English and less understanding of American ways.

A teenager, Major Toro, came from Panama with his parents and older brother. Bullied in school, he is caught between two worlds, neither of which he feels are his own. The damaged Maribel comes into his life and everything changes. They are thrown together through crisis and necessity. Their story brings the powerful themes of this novel into bold relief.

There are many striking moments in this beautifully written story: the fear after 9/11, the hope engendered by Obama’s first election, the absurdity of the new ways of an unknown country. Also the joys of discovering a new language, of trying strange foods, of feeling you are capable of thriving on your own; these positive (and often humorous) experiences are here, too.

The Book of Unknown Americans.

The Book of Unknown Americans.

Ms. Henriquez is a wise and knowing guide through the vagaries of acclimating to a new land. She creates a variety of characters from a multitude of backgrounds with warmth and truth. The microcosm she creates reminds us of the subtle differences among America’s many cultures and their important commonalities. Ultimately, we all want the same things. As this powerful book demonstrates, it is only when we are afraid that we forget our neighbor is one of us.

Spotlight on Local Writers: Julia Gibson

Former Milwaukeean Julia Gibson has recently published a new novel, Copper Magic. It is a book about a rebellious young woman who finds a secret treasure off the shores of Lake Michigan that changes her life. Inspired by the author’s experiences, the book draws on her coming of age in Milwaukee during the 1960’s.

Ms. Gibson’s parents taught at the University of Wisconsin and are still remembered as radical activists. Copper Magic is published by Macmillan. She will be on tour this September, with a stop in Milwaukee. Ms. Gibson’s biography and more information can be found at

Upcoming Book Events:

Friday, August 8 (7:00 PM): Roxane Gay, author of An Untamed State and Bad Feminist: Essays, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Sunday, August 10 (11:00 AM): Story Time with Jannis! This month, Jannis will read I Got the Rhythm by Connie Schofield-Morrison and other stories about music and dancing. Recommended for ages 18 months and up at Boswell Book Company.

Monday, August 11 (7:00 PM): Outwords Men’s Reading Group discusses Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, 2710 N. Murray Avenue, Milwaukee. Call (414) 963-9089.

Tuesday, August 12 (6:30 PM): J. A. Jance, author of Remains of Innocence: A Brady Novel of Suspense, reads in the Milwaukee Public Library’s Centennial Hall’s Loos Room at 733 N. Eighth Street in Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Tuesday, August 12 (7:00 PM): Conversation between WUWM Lake Effect’s Mitch Teich and Jeff Miller, author of Scoop: Notes from a Small Ice Cream Shop at Purple Door Ice Cream, 205 South Second Street in Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Tuesday, August 12 (7:00 PM): Outwords Lesbian Reading Group discusses The War Within by Yolanda Wallace at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee.

Wednesday, August 13 (6:30 PM): Book Club discusses Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler at The Little Read Book, 7603 W. State St., Wauwatosa. (414) 774-2665

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at And good reading!

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