Friday, March 22, 2013

The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar: a book report

"She felt a sudden and unexpected welling of altruism coursing through her veins, a drug that straightened your back and made you feel taller.  What else can you tell two lost boys but that you will take care of them?  "Araceli will take care of you," she repeated, "I will sleep here, on the floor, again.  Esta bien?"

--Hector Tobar, The Barbarian Nurseries

Over the past year or so, I've become increasingly interested in Latino culture, history, and immigrant rights.  I've been reading a lot of books about the struggle for Mexican American civil rights, and posting a lot of what I learn on my blog.  I've also been incorporating what I learn into my classes, because my students are writing about local issues, and immigrant rights and Latino culture are certainly local issues.  The other day, a student asked me why I was so "into" these things.  I thought about it for a moment and said, "I have a very good friend who is undocumented.  I have another friend who was involved in the Chicano Movement.  Reading about the discrimination Mexicans have faced in America, I feel it's important to talk about it.  I may not be Latin American, but that doesn't mean I don't have to care about Latino issues."  For me, these things are not abstract political debates.  They are real things involving real human beings, some of whom are my dear friends.
Another friend of mine, Gustavo Arellano (OC Weekly editor and author), has lately been hosting a series of lectures/discussions at the Fullerton Public Library called "Gustavo's Awesome Lecture Series."  At a recent event, Gustavo spoke with local author Hector Tobar about his new novel, The Barbarian Nurseries.  My roommate went to the lecture and brought me back an autographed copy.  That night, I began to read it, and was immediately enthralled, and so I have decided to write a book report about this eye-opening contemporary novel, which dives deeply and compassionately into the heart of the struggle for Mexican American civil rights.


The novel begins in an affluent suburb in Orange County called Laguna Rancho Estates, where two young parents named Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson live with their two sons, Brandon and Keenan, and a baby daughter.  In a small side house lives their maid, Araceli, who is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.  Tobar describes the Estates as "an American neighborhood where everything was new, a landscape vacant of meanings and shadings of time, each home painted eggshell-white by association rule, like featureless architect models plopped down by human hands on a stretch of empty savanna."  While Maureen appreciates the safety of the environment, she is also ambivalent: "In general, Maureen was put off by the undeniable superficiality of the Laguna Rancho Estates, by the plastic surgery fad that had swept through the place…she wouldn't' become one of those silicone Californians the people back home would sneer at.  High-priced real estate in a new subdivision attracted the kind of people who could throw money at their insecurities."

At the beginning of the novel, Scott (who works for a software company in Irvine, a Homeland Security defense contractor) is faced with the looming sub-prime mortgage crisis, and his sizable bank account is starting to dwindle, prompting him to fire his gardener and nanny, both Mexican immigrants.  Going over the family's finances, Scott "had quickly calculated what he paid the gardener over the course of a year and had come to a surprisingly large four-figure number."  

The action of the novel begins when, after a fight, both Scott and Maureen leave their house separately, neither knowing the other has left.  Maureen heads to a spa in Palm Springs; Scott spends the weekend at a co-worker's apartment.  Araceli, the maid, is left to care for the two children.  After a couple days, she begins to worry.  Neither Scott nor Maureen has told her where they've gone.  At this point, Araceli decides to take the children to Los Angeles, to find Scott's father, a Mexican immigrant who has become estranged from the family.  All Araceli has is an old photograph and an address in downtown Los Angeles.  Thus begins an odyssey which will take her and two privileged kids through all the social strata of contemporary southern California.

Riding the train into Los Angeles Union Station, the two kids encounter their first homeless people.  They are used to a world of affluence and comfort, and the ragged people they see look like characters from books, not real people.  Brandon, who is a voracious reader, is constantly comparing what he sees to books he's read.  Looking at homeless people living in cardboard shacks, he thinks, "These people are refugees; they are the defeated soldiers and the displaced citizens of the City of Vardur…How could such injustice exist, how could humanity live with it?"  His younger brother Keenan's response is more matter-of-fact: "These people are carrying the things they own inside the plastic bags my mother and Araceli use to bring things from the market.  Keenan was eight years old, but the poignancy of poor people clutching their valuables in plastic bags close to their weary bodies was not lost on him and for the first time in his young life he felt an abstract sense of compassion for the strangers in his midst." 

The protagonist of the novel is Araceli, whose thoughts we (as readers) get access to in the form of italicized portions of text.  Contrary to all stereotypes, Araceli is highly educated and creative.  She attended art school in Mexico City, before immigrating to America.  In her small room in the Laguna Rancho Estates, she uses discarded trash and magazines from the Torres-Thompson family to make sculptures, collages, and drawings, largely unbeknownst to the family.  Tobar describes one of her works: "The sculpture had the crude quality of an object formed by a series of haphazard and violent collisions, and in a letter to one of her friends Araceli had called it El Fenix de la Basura, the Garbage Phoenix.  Araceli liked it both for its disturbing, otherworldly quality and as a commentary on her situation in the United States…"  Because she cannot speak much English, many people (including the Torres-Thompson's) assume she is uneducated.  One of the main themes of the novel is breaking through social/cultural/language barriers to see people for who they really are, outside of cultural/social stereotypes.  Araceli is a complex, courageous, and deep character with whom we sympathize.  

While Araceli, Brandon, and Keenan are on their Los Angeles urban odyssey, Scott and Maureen eventually return home, to find their children and maid gone.  They eventually alert the authorities, and thus begins a legal and media shit-storm which embodies and hi-lights popular American fears and anxieties regarding undocumented immigrants from Mexico.  An "Amber Alert" is issued and the media runs wild with the story: "The first officially issued photographs of Brandon and Keenan, caught the attention of the midday editor of a Miami Beach-based news aggregation website, who made the story its lead item, with a headline in the usual all-caps, tabloid-iinspired, thirty-six point font.  CLOSE THE BORDER! CALIFORNIA BOYS IN ALIEN KIDNAP DRAMA.  Perusing this website's unique blend of celebrity gossip, political news, and weird animal and weather stories was a guilty pleasure in office cubicles and on laptops and smartphones across the country, and its fans included millions of American mothers whose children were in the care of women named Maria, Lupe, and Soledad."

Meanwhile, Araceli has no luck locating the elder Torres.  He no longer lives at the address printed on the back of the old photograph.  Araceli is also unaware that she is being presented by the media as an illegal alien kidnapper, but eventually, she sees herself on television: "Araceil grabbed the remote…and turned off the television, hoping to stop the delusional machine's madness, which would spread if she allowed it to keep flashing its images and its lies.  In the news, I am a fuzzy criminal."

News agencies, social services, the district attorney, the sheriff's department, anti-immigrant activists, and other interested parties join in the social drama of an undocumented maid and the two boys she is caring for.  A manhunt begins for Araceli, which ends in Huntington Park, where Araceli is tackled to the ground by a law enforcement officer.  The final section of the book, which details this lavish social drama with all its absurdity is called "Circus Californianus" -- a reference to the Roman Circus of old where people would gather to watch with fascination the misfortunes of others.  The location of the modern American circus is television screens which, contrary to received wisdom, actually distance people from reality.  

References to ancient Rome run subtly throughout the novel and even the title "The Barbarian Nurseries" is a reference to how the Romans of old viewed those outside their empire as barbarians to be feared.  The connection to modern American social discourse is that a large segment of the American population views immigrants from Latin America as a kind of invading "barbarian" horde.  Even Maureen, who employs an undocumented maid, shares these anxieties, which manifest in a dream: "Maureen slipped in and out of various episodic dreams, and then into the longest one, whose images would linger in her consciousness after she woke up.  Mexican day laborers were tramping about her home, eating her food, sitting on the tables, playing with Samantha.  A man with stringy and shiny hair that resembled black hay was trying to take apart her coffee table with the point of his machete, using it like a screwdriver.  What are you doing here?  Please leave.  Please.  Dirt encrusted their faces and their fingernails, and they bumped into one another and into the furniture as they walked about the house."

The novel tackles these fears and anxieties head-on, mostly by presenting us with the character of Araceli, who defies all stereotypes, with her creativity and compassion.  Ironically, it is the law enforcement, district attorney, and anti-immigrant activists who speak and act more like "barbarians," as they refuse to sincerely engage with and understand the plight of the "other."

I won't give away the ending of the novel.  It is epic and beautiful.  In the end, however, all of the characters experience a kind of epiphany and transformation.  The conflict and chaos forces people to re-evaluate their lives and their views of things they thought they understood.  The power of a novel like The Barbarian Nurseries is its ability to take an abstract political discourse and humanize it, to force us (the readers) it see it not in the context of sound bites and irrational anxieties, but in the context of real human beings struggling to find their way in this big, weird world.  



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