The inciting incident of The Book of Unknown Americans is one that occurs “off-screen,” so to speak: Maribel Rivera’s traumatic fall off of a ladder while visiting her father Arturo at his construction job. The ladder, then, is the physical representation of the moment that everything in the Rivera family changed, and its shaky and dangerous structure symbolizes the perils that accompany change. Maribel, who had once been independent, impetuous, and a bright, shining force within their extended family, loses the ability to emote or express much independent thought after the accident. She is easily confused and frustrated, and Alma and Arturo must care for her more intensely than is needed by most sixteen-year-olds. The fall from the ladder didn’t just change Maribel—it changed Alma, too, and it changed the way the Riveras see and relate to one another. Alma and Arturo, who had been so happy in their love for one another, suddenly find it difficult to relate to one another, and are frustrated by the new difficulties they face as parents. These internal changes within their family unit are paralleled by the geographic changes that the fall from the ladder incites—the Riveras’ move to America, a journey that is unpredictable and perilous. The move unseats Alma within her own life and suddenly makes her feel lost and vulnerable. It is no wonder, then, that her flashbacks to Maribel’s fall from the ladder seem to increase in both frequency and intensity after the Riveras arrive in America, and that her paranoia over having made the wrong choice—having forced her family into another, even more perilous change—grows steadily over the course of the novel’s events.
The Ladder Quotes in The Book of Unknown Americans
I was a worrier by nature and I couldn’t escape the feeling that anything could happen to her at any time. As if because something terrible had happened to her once, there was more of a possibility that something terrible would happen to her again. Or maybe it was merely that I understood how vulnerable she was in a way I hadn’t before. I understood how easily and how quickly things could be snatched away.