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The unsettling details of Michel Stone’s novel, Border Child, read as if they have been plucked from our daily news. A Mexican couple—still quite young with a child only a few months old—decide that el norte (the United States) offers them a better life than remaining in their village. They work out a plan, with the husband entering the United States first. Once he is established, he arranges for his wife and daughter to enter the country—illegally, as he did. But in their crossing, the two are separated, and the child is lost. What can be more of a nightmare for illegals than separation from their family?
Fleshed into the characters in the novel, the situation is more disturbing. Héctor, the husband, reaches Virginia safely and finds a good, welcoming job. After he’s saved enough money to bring in his wife, Lilia, and their daughter, Alejandra, then about a year old, he sends money to pay a coyote to help them sneak into the United States. The coyote says he doesn’t assist children, so Lilia is separated from Alejandra before the two of them are brought into the United States. Although Lilia was reluctant to give their child to a female coyote (though she believed the woman was successful in bringing children into the country), she agreed; but Alejandra never appeared at the site agreed upon for their reunion. After waiting and searching for their daughter, Héctor and Lilia return to Virginia where he works. Another year or so later, when Héctor helps a friend who is in an automobile accident, the authorities discover that he has no papers for being legally in the United States. Both Héctor and Alejandra are deported.
They return to the village where they grew up and are shunned as outcasts because the villagers regard them as ingrates who did not have enough respect for their country or their people to remain. Given the loss of their child, the animosity of the villagers makes their lives doubly hard. Héctor does not return to his earlier position as a truck driver but is forced to become a field worker on the farm where he earlier worked. Although the tension between Héctor and Lilia is often palpable, the birth of another child, a boy, solidifies their relationship and their determination to improve their lives. Then, Lilia is pregnant a third time, and before the baby is delivered, the two of them learn that their lost daughter, Alejandra, may be alive.
Alejandra is the invisible child in Michel Stone’s gripping novel. She propels the narrative from beginning to end, narrated by both of her parents and several other characters. Above all, Border Child is about grief and loss but also poverty and desperation. The villagers in Puerto Isadore, in southern Mexico where most of the action takes place, are dirt poor. They have few options to improve their lives and not much hope. Once Héctor and Lilia learn that their lost child may be at an orphanage in the northern part of the country, they encounter a new obstacle: insufficient money for Héctor to simply depart and search for her. His search will require time and money, so for a time he takes a risky but high-paying job, involving a small boat and relaying a cooler full of what he assumes are drugs in the darkness of night. The third and final time he makes a delivery, he can’t resist opening the cooler, taped shut. To his surprise, the contents are not narcotics but exotic birds that Héctor realizes are being illegally shipped out of the country. Goods, perhaps more profitable than drugs.
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to realize that Michel Stone regards Héctor and Lilia also as exotic creatures, worthy of respect instead of the ill regard inflicted upon them for trying to improve their lot el norte. Stone provides them with dignity and humanity, worthy of our concern rather than our more common negative regard. We see something akin to that in a brief scene when Héctor takes a bus from his village to the northern part of Mexico. On that bus he encounters a family of Honduran illegals, also trying to get to the border so they can sneak into the United States. Héctor talks to a young girl who tells him, “My sister was killed…. She and her boyfriend. A gang member shot them, and my parents had to fetch their bodies from the mountains…. The gangs in my neighborhood are terrible. Our house sits on the corner, and every day we can hear gunshots nearby, and at least once a week someone is killed on the corners near our house.” (189)
Border Child is a big-hearted novel, probing the reasons so many illegals have sought safety and success in the United States. It’s full of suspense and concern for desperate people who believe that their lives will be better if they can enter our country. How ironic that so many Americans no longer believe in the American dream; yet people from the rest of the world will put themselves at terrible risk to prove to us that the dream still exists.
Michel Stone: Border Child
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 254 pp., $26.95