Tell Us We're Home by Marina Budhos 2010
Atheneum/ Simon & Schuster
IQ "This was it, the steely truth of her life. What she had been fighting ever since they'd come to America. This was a lonely land of firsts, where no one, not even your parents, could help you cross over. [...] You pushed ahead, in the chilling rain, hoping you didn't die from being first." Lola pg. 236
Jaya, Maria and Lola become fast friends when they discover that they all share something in common, their mothers are maids. They are in 8th grade and they stick out, they are never invited to any of the parties or other social events in the 8th grade. They are good friends and they want to fit in with everyone at their school, but it's hard to do when your classmates are the people your mothers babysit or clean up after. When Jaya's mother is accused of theft, Jay's world crumbles. Along with this issue, tensions over immigration are starting, some events resulting in violence.
Jaya is from Trinidad, Maria is from Mexico and Lola is from Slovakia. I liked that each girl's cultural background was different, and yet their experiences were similar. I've read many books about Mexican immigrants and I have many Mexican friends so I was familiar with Mexican culture, but I knew very little about Slovakia or Trinidad. The reader spends the most time with Jaya and learning about her family and life in Trinidad (you would only want to visit Jaya's Trinidad, not live there. Contrary to the misconception that life in the Caribbean is easy and relaxing), I did want to know more about Slovakia. Lola was probably my least favorite character out of the three main characters. Lola is obsessed with history (which I can understand) but she is so frustratingly socially awkward. It was almost like she deliberately set herself up to be rejected by her classmates and sometimes she just lacked all common sense. Lola never thinks about the consequences of her actions. The way she treated Maria just because she had a crush was awful. Towards the end of the novel, I did grow to like her more (my heart completely broke when I read the Incredible Quote). If it weren't for Lola's break down and wake up, I may not have liked her at all, but part of what makes Marina Budhos such a good author is how she doesn't make any character 100% perfect or lovable. At times I forgot that Jaya's mother is accused of stealing, that mystery plays a smaller part than the synopsis makes it sound. The story deals more with the attitudes held toward immigrants by their suburban neighbors along with the girls friendship.
The story is told in alternating points of view that really help the story, it would have been duller if it was told from only one perspective. However, the girls all seemed distant and I think this was due to the third person narrative. I think this book would have been stronger if the alternating points of view were in first person. Most of the book covers the friendship between the girls as well as their relationships with their mothers. The story isn't particularly light hearted but Maria makes some ironic observations that on the surface seem funny and then you realize that it's really not funny. "Gringos went all that way to dig dirt for free, while her cousin came here to do the same, for money." (pg. 25). I actually understood why Maria had a crush on Tash (a gringo) which was nice, sometimes in YA I don't understand the attraction at all. The strength in this story lies in the fact that it describes a way of life for a group of people that many teenage readers may not know about. I had babysitters when I was little and I can't say that I ever paused to think about what their home life was like or to wonder about how their kids felt about having mothers who were nannies. As I grew older my eyes were opened, but this book opened my eyes even wider and it will probably open up the eyes of other readers. The actions of some of the girls white classmates and neighbors are absolutely awful and do not at all embody the American spirit of welcoming immigrants to her shores.
Tell Us We're Home is a potent story with a vital message about the American Dream and the struggles of immigrants. Unfortunately, after moving to America, life is only a little better for most immigrants. Yes we should all have to work hard, but some of us have to work a lot harder than others, due to circumstances of birth and that's not fair. Where you were born should not affect your chance of success, but it does. While I didn't connect emotionally with the characters, their situations and ordeals that they went through were described so well that it didn't matter. The author has a powerful way with words. This story will not allow you to look at "the help" in the same way. The story definitely has middle grade crossover appeal. In fact I would encourage people to give it to middle school aged children because that is the time when they should start becoming more aware.
Disclosure: Received from Book Fairy #2, thanks Lyn!
PS I've actually read Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos, but I never reviewed it (it's on my never ending need-to-review list). I loved it and yet hated that situations like that had to happen. Can we please fix our immigration system and stop thinking that every Muslim is a terrorist? Thank you.
PPSS Some of my other favorite lines from the book;
"He carried himself like a white boy, as if his whole body could part the air, make things happen." (pg. 24) This statement is thought by Maria and it's probably my second favorite line from the book. Another one of Maria's keen observations about white male privilege.
"For the first time Jaya understood that this is what love could do: It could change your inner shape, make you curve to another." (pg. 68)