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The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life

Lauren Markham puts a face (two faces) to the terrible issue of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States. In her author's note,  she writes, "'Why are they coming, and why so many?' I wrote in my first piece on unaccompanied minors. It was an earnest question. Every answer raised another question, and the result is this book. It is about who these young men and women are, where they come from, the choices they've made and what their stories reveal about who we are as a country, and what we will, or might, become."

Markham's The Far Away Brothers focuses on the tale of one Salvadoran family. and in particular the pair of twins who fled gang violence to make a new life in El Norte, or the United States. They become hermanos lejanos, or "faraway brothers," trying to figure out how to survive in this new world. By following Raúl and Ernesto (the twins), Markham gives you a glimpse into the lives of so many young men and women who risk everything to come to the U.S. We the readers learn about their home life, about the debt they incurred to leave El Salvador, their passage to the U.S., their detainment by U.S. immigration services, their lives in Oakland, their jobs and their struggles in school.... but we also get a glimpse into the lives of their siblings and parents back home. They struggle to find the money to send back home to their family. Even though the brothers are quickly detained upon their arrival, they eventually get their green cards. They rarely speak of the trauma they live with from the horrors that they experienced in crossing north.

The brothers' paths diverge, and Markham does a remarkable job of telling their story with empathy and respect. She faced a dilemma when she began to write: she knew the twins from her capacity as a school administrator, not a reporter. When she talked it over with them, and came to the conclusion: "if I could trust myself to tell their story respectfully and carefully, and if the twins accepted and encouraged the idea, it was appropriate for me to write this book. Ultimately, as nineteen-year-olds, they made the choice that yes, they wanted their story told." She interweaves chapters about them with the policy decisions and the history that coalesced into the situations they find themselves in. She writes about the gang violence in El Salvador. It never feels too heavy handed, and you walk away having learned something real.

For that reason and that reason alone, this book is necessary reading for present-day America. It dismantles narratives about undocumented immigrants coming to America, and puts you in their shoes. She includes a paper that Ernesto wrote one day, in his poor English (much of the book focuses on the failures of the school - and how difficult it is to balance their below-minimum wage jobs with attending school):

Many children are crossing the border for a better life. In 2012 police caught 13,000. And in 2013 there were even more than 2014. Many young people come to the U.S. without parents. They are leaving from Central America. Many come because the gangs make their life very difficult. Many of them are arrested by the police officer. The government can less the problem by, helping the children considered, as refugees.... 

I won't copy the whole paper into here, but what is important is that at age 17, these brothers suffered more than one can begin to imagine. Markham writes that very few people want to leave their homes: "people leave because something there has become untenable." By giving readers an access point - the story of Raúl and Ernesto - Markham shines a light on the tales of thousands of refugee and migrant children. A must-read. Rating: ★★★★★

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