As a character in Cristina Henriquez’s brilliant Book of Unknown Americans says:
Who comes to the United States and ends up in Delaware?
Which was my thought exactly as I read first a romance novel showing the strong German roots of the Delaware Amish, then a novel about Italian immigrants in Wilmington, and then finished Delaware off with Henriquez’s Book of Unknown Americans which tells the stories of Americans of Latino ancestry living in – you guessed it – Delaware.
Delaware always seemed to me a land of farms and rolling hills, like what I saw on bicycle rides through the Delmarva peninsula when we lived in Maryland, but after reading these books I see there are thriving cultural populations in the cities of Delaware. I see the state in a whole new way now.
Novel: The Book of Unknown Americans
Author: Christina Henriquez, born in Delaware
Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Hispanic Fiction
Set in modern day Delaware, in an apartment building populated by immigrants from Mexico, Paraguay, Panama, this powerful book tells the stories of these unknown people, most of whom are American citizens or legal immigrants with visas, who are treated like slaves, animals, and idiots because they are perceived as “wetbacks,” “illegals,” “lazy Mexicans,” and other insulting stereotypes.
We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?
The underlying story in The Book of Unknown Americans is deep and beautiful. Told from the points of view of several characters who live in the apartment building, the tale is of an outcast boy and a girl who would have been out of his league but for an accident that left her brain damaged and ostracized. Both rejected by their peers, they are the only ones who understand and appreciate each other. Her family worked two years to get the necessary paperwork to legally bring her to the US from Mexico so she could go to a special school, and The Book of Unknown Americans explores their struggle to pursue the American Dream.
To balance the hard issues Henriquez deals with, she also injects the story with wonder and beauty,
In México, men sold ice out of carts they attached to bicycles. Here, it was falling from the sky.
and with humor:
Celia told me about the provisions we would need for winter – heavy coats and a stack of comforters and something called long underwear that made me laugh when she tried to describe it.
The Book of Unknown Americans is layered, dealing with guilt and fault and blame, dealing with concepts of home, and dealing with belonging, and citizenship, and citizenry. Moreover it explores not a single culture, but the human conditions of joy, heartache, and love: the love of adolescents, of parents for children, of husbands and wives, of friends, and of nations.
Novel: Courting Ruth
Author: Emma Miller, lives in Kent County, Delaware
Categories: Christian Fiction, Romance
You know what I love about this reading project? I’m reading books that I would have never otherwise read, like Emma Miller’s Courting Ruth: an Amish romance novel.
An Amish romance novel.
Courting Ruth is set in Seven Poplars, a fictitious Amish community in rural Delaware that reflects the farms and fields of the author’s Delaware upbringing. Filled with rural imagery, earthy landscapes, and funny farmhouse metaphors, Courting Ruth is warm and wholesome. Not to mention I’m always going to love a book that describes my common-colored eyes as “nutmeg brown with dashes of cinnamon and ginger.”
Also, this book made me hungry.
My husband and I used to live in Maryland where we’d often visit the Amish market on Saturdays to buy cheeses, pastries, and homemade ice cream. This book triggered memories of that market, of how simple it felt to be there, with the Amish in their Plain dress, with honey wood walls, worn communal-picnic tables, walls lined with cases of golden loaves and rustic pies, heavy mechanical cash registers dinging with real bells and slamming shut with satisfying ka-chunks. And women with their aprons and men with their beards.
I learned from this book that a man’s beard signifies that he’s married, that the Amish faith instructs that its followers live apart from the world, that pride is to be avoided, and that I can totally romanticize the simple life.
The sun-warmed boards felt good on the soles of Ruth’s bare feet.
I loved this book for its bucolic landscapes, and for the pies, and for the summer evenings. But most of all I loved it for the warmth and security it made me feel.
Novel: The Saint of Lost Things
Author: Christopher Castellani, born & raised in Wilmington, DE
Setting: Wilmington, Delaware
Categories: Contemporary Fiction
Set in 1953 Wilmington, Delaware, in the Italian district around Seventh and Eighth Streets, The Saint of Lost Things is a year in the lives of an immigrant Italian family at varying states of integration into their new American lives. There are the brothers Mario and Antonio: Mario the effusive restauranteur and manager of Stella’s Italian restaurant, and Antonio the smart but timid older brother who works an assembly line in an auto factory but dreams of opening a proper Italian restaurant one day – one that is sophisticated and elegant. Mario and Antonio live together with their wives, Ida and Madellena, and their parents, all of them in an apartment on Eighth Street.
The Saint of Lost Things focuses on the struggles of Antonio and Madellana as they find their way in America, childless for seven years and resigned to a life without a large Italian family of their own. In the story, Madellena constantly looks back in time toward her small Italian village where she left her lover, her sister, and her weeping mother to come to America with Antonio, a stranger whom she married.
He stares into his whiskey the way a woman stares into a lake, as if seeking an honest answer from the reflection.
As is often the way with books that include the mannerisms and language of another country – famiglia, la musica, bambina – The Saint of Lost Things, just in putting the sound of the Italian language in my head, made me hungry for Italian food. It also made me romanticize Italian culture – the closeness of families, the tradition, the loyalty, and the focus on passion – while also showing that exclusion and prejudice are sadly, a human theme, as when several members of the Italian community repeatedly vandalize the new black family’s house in an attempt to drive them out of the neighborhood.
Mostly, though The Saint of Lost Things is about making new life, and new love.
For Further Reading in Delaware
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
I’m On My Way But Your Foot is On My Head by Bertice Berry
Contents Under Pressure by Lara M. Zeises
The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls by Julie Shumacher
Final Price by Gregory Smith
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.