Book Review: Exploring race and immigration |

Book Review: Exploring race and immigration

Michelle Dover/For the Steamboat Pilot & Today
“Book of Unknown Americans” by Christina Henriquez

“Book of Unknown Americans” by Christina Henriquez

Studies suggest that people tend to associate with people who are similar to them — religiously, politically, economically and, yes, racially. How do we get to know the people who are not in our sphere when we naturally isolate ourselves from each other?

Christina Henriques and Celester Ng have written novels in the past year that explore race and immigration from an intimate perspective: the lives, struggles and emotion of immigrants navigating their complex lives as minorities.

“Book of Unknown Americans”

By Christina Henriquez

“Book of Unknown Americans” by Christina Henriquez

Henriquez shares a contemporary portrait of Latin American immigrants’ lives that often are hidden behind the immigration debates. The characters are all neighbors in the same dreary apartment complex in Delaware. Their stories are diverse, some occupants are escaping political unrest from places like Guatemala, Panama and Nicaragua.

The family the story circles around is the Riveras who came to the United States from Mexico to find a good school for their daughter who recently has suffered a traumatic brain injury.

We learn the conflicts that many first generation immigrants feel when a boy ponders “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 didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.”

We see their daily struggles, such as riding a bus or finding a grocery store to their histories that brought them to the United States. When they struggle to find jobs, they reveal the hope that some placed in a new kind of president when they complain, “about how so far President Obama hadn’t done anything and how they absolutely saw zero improvements.”

Henriquez offers readers a moving story of the immigrant experience.

“Everything I Never Told You”

By Celeste Ng

“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng

It is small town Ohio in 1977 and the Lee family includes James who is a first generation Chinese American, his wife, Marilyn, who is white, and their three children. The New York Times has called Ng’s first book a literary thriller, in familiar territory, but with a completely unique spin.

The first chapter reveals that Lydia, the eldest daughter in the Lee family was found dead in a local lake. As the police and family try to discover the circumstances surrounding her death, who Lydia was becomes the biggest mystery of all.

The family interactions are infused with isolation as we learn each person struggles alone. The family never discusses navigating their biracial status and is oblivious to one another’s struggles. Perspectives are muddled by sibling dynamics, parental pressures and expectations.

James who always felt like an outsider, always struggling to find his place, drives him to pressure his own children to fit in socially. Marilyn’s dreams of becoming a doctor were dashed when she chooses motherhood, thus we understand the academic pressures she placed upon her daughter.

Ng’s ultimately offers us a solemn story of racism, a family’s failure to communicate with one another and what actually happened to Lydia.

Michelle Dover is the circulation services manager at Bud Werner Memorial Library.

This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore; e-book can be found at

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