I took a break from reading Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann's early 20th Century tome about the collapse of an German family, to read about a modern Californian family's demise. Because we live in a time of hyper-descent, it takes the Torres-Thompson family less than a decade to accomplish what Buddenbrooks did over three generations. This particular story concerns the fallout from economic malaise on the lives of a pampered family living in a gated community by the sea. Their stoic Mexican housekeeper, who battles in isolation against their domestic disharmony, is drawn into a reluctant intimacy with the children, when each parent flees separately after an epic battle over money. With her limited English and a naive viewpoint about familial stability, Araceli sets forth with the two children to find an estranged grandfather in the teeming urban landscape of Los Angeles, with nothing but a faded photograph and a scribbled address as her guide. Imagine Huck Finn and Jim riding suburban transport into the heartland.
The boys, Orange County aristocrats, try to make sense out of what they encounter by referencing an fantasy-adventure series. Their parents' eventual return leads to a terrifying police chase and trumped-up charges against the housekeeper, whose case becomes a cause célèbre for the newly-empowered Latino community and pits her against the xenophobic establishment. It all sounds terribly exciting and relevant but a lot of it depends on implausible plot twists and it suffers from a diminishing sense of danger as the resolution becomes obvious. The title may be an ironic reference to the legions of undocumented immigrants who inspire fear and distrust as a group while, as individuals, they toil daily to care for our homes, gardens and children. Some of the dialogue is written in Spanish. This serves to accentuate the conflict that immigration provokes in our national conversation. Hector Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, has written an engrossing tale about America's most polarizing issue, but in the end, his contribution seems as mired in ambivalence as it is for everyone else.