I’ve read three books this year that deal with the theme of the American Dream. Two are juicy, magical novels, and one is the autobiography of a role model and Supreme Court Justice.
Colson Whitehead’s American Dream/Nightmare
I’ll start with my favorite. “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead knocked me over. I love this book. It took me three pages to get into and then the poetry, and strange stuff happened and I couldn’t put it down. The premise of this novel, that the Underground Railroad was a real railroad, leads me back to my childhood misunderstanding. There was a point I thought that was literally the truth in history.
Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Whitehead uses the particular to talk about the general, and writes with magical detail. The story is painful but kept me turning the page. Cora runs away from a violent sinkhole of plantation life. Her saga takes many twists, including finding meaningful work that is not labor stolen from her body. She is also betrayed. Cora is pursued by a vicious slave catcher (the kind Matthew McConaughey could play effectively) and discovers a community unlike any she could have imagined.
This is, in many ways, a dreamy and strange story. The characterizations are unconventional. While Cora is a character you root for, there are other characters that are chilling. She is the product of a system that uses her, and is left without family or care. Cora takes a risk to save her own life and it catapults the story. I truly iher as if she was someone I met, talked to and became friends with.
The American Dream here is wrapped up in the quest for freedom against overwhelming odds. Violence is rooted in this version of the story of black America. I highly recommend reading this novel.
Immigration and the American Dream
“Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue is driven by riveting dialogue and sympathetic characters. This is Mbue’s first novel! It’s so very accomplished- I can’t wait to read whatever else Mbue writes.
2008 is not that long ago, making this story of Cameroonian immigrants jutting up against the Great Recession accessible. I remember the panic and uncertainty that was part of that time. Layoffs, the news of graft and corruption in high places, and the overall sense of hopelessness are all in this book.
Neni and Jende just want to make better lives for themselves and their growing family. Jende’s new job as driver to a top Wall Streeter seems like the start of better days, but the rich man’s life is toxic and the toxicity spreads to Jene and Neni’s life.
Mbue doesn’t judge her characters harshly. Each person is presented in his light and darkness. The rich can’t escape their suffering either in this novel, though they have more choices in how to deal with grief than the poor.
The book is full of humor but also deep questions. Is this country welcoming to immigrants? Where is the justice when the rich scam the poor? Is the American Dream still open to everyone or only an elite few?
The female characters and children are most compelling to me. Neni is far more invested in the dreams she creates around education and possibility than her husband. As the novel progresses, their marriage evolves in ways I was unable to predict.
Sonia Sotomayor and the Hopeful Dream
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a lyrical memoir, “My Beloved World”. The autobiography begins with her Bronx childhood, and all the joys and sorrows her family faced. She is an involving writer, with fresh descriptions of her younger years. The book moved me most when Sotomayor talks about her tough mother, irrepressible grandma, and troubled father. Those sections of the book resonate for me since I too grew up in the South Bronx to Latino parents.
Sotomayor is defiant and a doer- never slowing down. Her pursuit of education at Princeton and Yale put her in the upper echelon of the legal profession but she pursued a career in public service. Her life story develops in such a way that you understand why she chose that course.
I profoundly appreciate her defense of affirmative action at a time when the gains made by people of color are being stripped. Sotomayor has worked for every opportunity and is relentless in her pursuit of excellence. I love reading a memoir about an empowered, ambitious woman. The fact that she is on SCOTUS makes this story extra rewarding.
In many ways, the book is about the American Dream fulfilled through hard word and appreciating those who have lent a hand and opened up the paths to success. It is also about what happens when dreams are deferred. Justice Sotomayor has known tragedy: illness, her father’s early death, her cousin’s entanglement with drugs. She doesn’t gloss over the hard stories of people in the neighborhood who never made it up the ladder. Shetells a story that I find revealing of her values:
I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view.
Imaging someone else’s POV and life story is a valuable gift.
A theme that recurs in my life is that of empathy. All three of these books show what happens when connection and empathy break down. Slavery was a cruel system of forced labor and abuse- a complete lack of empathy for fellow human beings. Today, the closing of borders to even the neediest refugees shows our lack of empathy as well.
The American Dream is about economic opportunity but ale embracing plurality. These two novels and memoir do a beautiful job demonstrating how empathy plays a role in our collective greatness.