Tuesday, December 20, 2011


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The Barbarian Nurseries, Hector Tobar, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011, 422 pp

I read this wonderful novel simply because the author lives in Los Angeles. Hector Tobar, son of Guatemalan parents who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s, is an LA Times columnist. The Barbarian Nurseries is his third book; his second novel. He has created a unique hybrid: a factual portrayal of a city and its immigration woes couched in fiction and driven by characters who surprised me at every turn.

Araceli is an undocumented Mexican immigrant working for an affluent family inside a gated community in Orange County. Scott Torres made his money in the days of the dot com boom but now holds down an uninspiring IT job while trying to maintain the standard of living he overspent to attain. In an effort to economize, he and his wife have laid off their full-time gardener and nanny, leaving Araceli to pick up dropped hats in addition to her job as maid. She cooks and cleans, is paid in cash, lives in a tiny guest house and has one day off every two weeks. Now she is expected to also help with the three children.

Back in Mexico City, Araceli had studied art in college while she dreamed of el norte. She has not a motherly bone in her body. When Scott and his wife both vanish after a violent argument, Araceli is left with the two older children, with no news of or contact from the parents, and not much food in the house.

So begins a journey to and through Los Angeles using public transportation, a picture of the boys' grandfather and what turns out to be a long outdated address. Naturally various types of hell break loose.

I have lived in LA for twenty years but Hector Tobar and Araceli took me to places I have never been; pockets of neighborhoods populated by all levels of Hispanic society from the homeless to educated politicians. We have a Mexican gardener who mows and blows once every other week. We eat Mexican food in restaurants regularly. And that is all I know except for when immigration issues get enough press to penetrate my virtually complete neglect of the news media.

At first I was put off by Hector Tobar' writing style. I have read enough novels by former journalists to be wary. But this author uses his reportorial chops to create places, occurrences, and characters, making it all so real that you feel you are there yourself. He lets us into his characters' minds and souls by chronicling their thoughts and then describing their actions. By the end of what became a more gripping story page by page, I was in a fever of anticipation to learn how it would all turn out. I never could guess or predict the fate of Araceli or the family she ultimately saved until the last few pages.

Did I mention the kids? The eleven-year-old son who reads like crazy and processes his experiences in LA by relating them to all the fantasy novels he devours? The homeless boy taken in by a single mom and made to serve her and her children to the point that the OC kids think he is a slave? Tobar knows kids.

As any avid reader of fiction has found, many and various are the high points, disappointments, and sometimes slogging boredom involved. The Barbarian Nurseries is a shining high point. Except for Native Americans, every American citizen is ultimately a descendent of an immigrant. We are a country of immigrants built on the backs, the labor, and the hopes of other immigrants. Despite the hardships, the ridiculous prejudices, the exploitation, the immigrant story may be the most romantic story our country has to tell. Hector Tobar certainly made it so.

If you only get through a novel a month, or less, I highly recommend you squander some reading time on this one.

(The Barbarian Nurseries is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available by order as an eBook. To find it at your local bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

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