Discussion Guide for The Book of Unknown Americans
1. How does Alma’s perspective in the novel’s first chapter illustrate her and her family’s hopes for their new life in America? Take another look at her statement after the trip to the gas station: “The three of us started toward the road, doubling back in the direction from which we had come, heading toward home” (11). What are the meanings of “home” here, and how does this scene show how America meets and differs from the Riveras’ expectations of it?
2. Mayor describes how he’s bullied at school and his general feelings of not fitting in. How do you think this draws him to Maribel? What do they have in common that perhaps those around them, including their parents, cannot see on the surface?
3. How is the scene where the Riveras sit down for a dinner of oatmeal a turning point for the family and for the book? Discuss the role of food in the novel, especially how it evokes memories of home and establishes a sense of community. Are there any other cultural values or traditions that do the same thing?
4. What are some key differences in the way that the women in the novel respond to challenges of assimilation compared to the men? How does Alma’s point of view highlight these differences?
5. What brings Alma and Celia together as neighbors and friends, and how does their relationship change by the end of the book?
6. What are some of the signs throughout the novel that Maribel is getting better? Consider the scene in the pizza restaurant in particular, and her response to Alma’s joke. How does laughter here, and in other places in the book, evoke feelings of nostalgia and change?
7. How does Alma’s lingering guilt about Maribel’s accident affect her choices and interactions when she’s in America? Do you think that she still feels this way by the end of the book? What does she have to do, and realize within herself, to move beyond her feelings?
8. Do other characters besides Alma struggle with guilt? How does this emotion echo throughout the book, even among the varying narrators/voices?
9. How would you describe the atmosphere of the impromptu Christmas party in the Toros’ apartment (p. 137)? What brings the residents of the building together, as a group and in more intimate settings? Why do you think Cristina Henríquez brought all the characters together during this particular holiday?
10. Discuss Quisqueya’s role in what happens to Mayor and Maribel. Without her intervention, how might have their relationship, and ultimately the novel, ended differently?
11. How does Garrett cast a threatening shadow over several characters’ thoughts and actions? Did your opinion of him change after you learned about his home environment? How much blame can, or did, you ascribe to him for what happens to Arturo?
12. How does the Toros’ buying a car influence the course of events in the novel? What does the car mean for Rafael and Mayor individually and for their father-son relationship?
13. Was Alma’s decision to return to Mexico with Maribel the best one? Were there alternatives, or did their departure seem inevitable to you?
14. Alma and Mayor are the primary narrators of the book, yet they have very different voices and perspectives. How does pairing these points of view affect the telling of this story, even as they are punctuated by the voices of the neighbors in Redwood Apartments? And how does the chorus of voices affect this main story and pose larger questions of immigration and the Latino experience in the United States?
15. Were you surprised that the book takes place in Newark, Delaware, rather than in the larger Latin American communities of Florida, New York, Texas, or California? What does this setting suggest about immigrant families like the Riveras and the Toros across the country? Do you feel differently about the immigration debate now raging in the United States after reading this book?
16. Do you, the members of your family, or your friends have stories of moving to another country to start a new life? Did any of the stories in the novel resonate with those you know?
17. How does the final chapter, told in Arturo’s voice, influence your understanding of what he felt about America? What do you make of how he ends his narrative, “I loved this country,” and that it is the last line of the book (286)?
Discussion Guide for The World in Half
1. The first chapter of the novel, “Origination,” begins:
“More than three thousand miles below the surface of the earth is its core. It’s taken scientists a long time to learn anything about it. Most of them would readily admit that they know more about every other planet in the solar system than they do about the pit that’s at the center of ours.”
What kind of tone does Henríquez set with these opening lines? How does it relate to the journey that Mira takes to Panama? Do you think Mira gets to the core of what she’s looking for? What does she discover? What remains a mystery?
2. Science looks for proof and concrete evidence. In what ways is Mira’s journey a scientific expedition? What evidence does she collect? Give examples from her experience.
3. At several points, Mira and her mother refer to their radically different senses of style: Mira rarely gets dressed up while her mother is preoccupied with her appearance. Why do you think Henríquez draws parallels between the two? What, if anything, does it say about the generational differences between Mira and her mother? About their different views on outer vs. inner strength?
4. Mira is fascinated by the feel and shape and patterns of the earth, the details of the landscape in both Panama and Chicago. Why does the landscape of a place have such an effect on Mira’s experience? How would you describe Mira’s inner landscape before going to Panama? After? Her mother’s? Danilo’s?
5. “The key to finding lost things, though, is knowing where to look. And when you don’t know that, sometimes you just have to hope that something will break wide open.”
6. What does Mira mean by this? Do you agree?
7. Both Miraflores and her father share a name with a lock on the Panama Canal. Locks control water levels by manipulating naturally built water pressure. How are the locks symbolically significant in the novel?
8.On page 116, Mira says, “What I learned about the Panama Canal is what I learned in school.” What did you know about the Canal before reading the book? How did the novel change—or challenge—your understanding of the geography, history and symbolism of the waterway?
9. At the novel’s close, Mira is describing her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s to Danilo “my mother’s brain—her mind, her life—fractured, was fracturing still, into a thousand pieces. I don’t know how to say all of that in Spanish, though. It doesn’t matter. As usual, Danilo understands me.” Despite language barriers and limitations, Mira feels understood by Danilo. Why? And how? How does language shape Mira’s journey? What is the difference between Mira and Danilo’s friendship and the friendship between Mira and her friends from Chicago? Do you have someone in your life that understands you the way Danilo understands Mira?
10. “People live—I mean, really live—in spaces that aren’t on a map,” (page 129) says Danilo. What do you think he means by this? Do you agree? Where do people “really live”?
11. Letters reveal much of the story in The World in Half. Which ones stood out for you? Why are letters so powerful to Mira?
12. Imagine Mira’s future—and her mother’s. What will happen in two months? In a year? In five? What letters might Mira write?