The Book of Unknown Americans


Cristina Henríquez

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The Book of Unknown Americans Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Cristina Henríquez's The Book of Unknown Americans. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Cristina Henríquez

Born in Delaware to an American mother and a Panamanian father, Henríquez is a graduate of Northwestern University and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of two novels—2009’s The World in Half and 2014’s The Book of Unknown Americans—and one collection of short stories, 2006’s Come Together, Fall Apart. Henríquez has written nonfiction for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She lives in Illinois.
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Historical Context of The Book of Unknown Americans

The Book of Unknown Americans is set primarily in Delaware in 2008, in the months leading up to and directly following the election of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 has gripped the nation, and several of Henríquez’s characters live daily with the fear that they will lose their jobs—eventually, for Arturo Rivera and for Rafael Toro, those fears are realized. In tertiary characters’ flashbacks, Henríquez transports her readers to, among other places: the hubbub of 1960s New York City, the tumult and violence of the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama (an invasion code named “Operation Just Cause,” justified by the U.S. as a means of securing the neutrality of the Panama Canal and deposing the corrupt dictator Manuel Noriega), and to 1980s Guatemala, which was, at the time, in the middle of what would turn out to be a nearly-thirty-year-long civil war between the Guatemalan government and rebel groups. Through these detours into the past, Henríquez illustrates the often horrific and violent situations that have forced countless American immigrants to flee their home countries in search of safety. Henríquez complicates the term “American” by examining what it means to be stateless and displaced, in search of a welcoming place to call home—and what it means to find that America is a less-than-welcoming place for many. 

Other Books Related to The Book of Unknown Americans

Drawing inspiration from novels featuring multiple narrators, such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Henríquez constructs a narrative that is built on many voices and many perspectives. As in Egan’s novel, and Diaz’s, Heníquez creates a narrative which is as much about voice and point of view as it is about story. Novels told from multiple perspectives or in interconnected chunks have become popular in recent years, reflected in the success of books such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, for example. In addition, the core plot of The Book of Unknown Americans—the story of the Riveras’ arrival in the United States and their new lives in a Delaware apartment complex populated largely by Latino and Latina immigrants—is reminiscent of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, about coming of age in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago.
Key Facts about The Book of Unknown Americans
  • Full Title: The Book of Unknown Americans
  • When Written: 2009-2013
  • When Published: 2014
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Literary fiction
  • Setting: Newark, Delaware, U.S.A.
  • Climax: Believing his daughter Maribel is in danger, Arturo sets out to confront the boy he believes is responsible and he is shot and killed along the way 
  • Antagonist: Garrett Miller
  • Point of View: Several different characters—some minor, some recurring, almost all immigrants from South and Central America—narrate the events of the novel, or offer short bits of testimony on their lives as “unknown Americans.”

Extra Credit for The Book of Unknown Americans

Lovestruck. Cristina Henríquez, in an article for The New Yorker, describes how she fell in love with writing: the “embarrassing” story is that she began writing “for a boy” in high school. After she spent “a lot of time” declaring her love for one particular classmate in person, he bought her a notebook and urged her to write down everything she wanted to say to him, and give it back to him at the end of the year. Henríquez agreed, and, in the process of writing “for” someone else, she found her true calling and “[hasn’t] stopped writing since.”