- What: Border Child
- Who: Michel Stone
- Pages: 250, hard cover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
I received Border Child from a publisher sometime in 2018. I delayed reading it though because it seemed too real and too close to real-world problems. Books are powerful in that they call attention to immoral circumstances in our everyday lives; they’re also powerful because they can be an escape from that reality. With our current tumultuous landscape and with the U.S. border such a fiery topic, I strayed from this novel. I didn’t think my heart could take it.
I knew its purpose likely had meaning and influence and hoped it was a book that would change people’s minds, give them that “ah ha” moment that sadly this growing nationalist world needs. But I couldn’t bring the nastiness of the world into my literary one, not yet anyways.
Until I finally did — and was disappointed. Border Child has foundational power for issues that are often ignored when talking about immigration reform; however, it lacks strong storytelling to really bring these problems and challenges to the forefront of conversation. It didn’t captivate me like I had wanted, and it doesn’t do the real-life people and problems that inspired it much justice.
Hector and Lilia fell in love at a young age in a poor Mexican village. They were drawn to one another because of their big dreams and hopes for a brighter future. With marriage under their belt and a toddler in their arms, the couple decided that better opportunity in America was worth risking their lives illegally at the U.S.-Mexican border. Hector left first, but loneliness and anxiety prompted Lilia to follow too soon and to put her trust in the wrong people. This caused her to be separated from their daughter, Alejandra, before crossing into the States.
Stone’s story begins four years after this tragedy. Hector and Lilia are back home in Mexico with one toddler boy and another baby on the way. Even though they repaired their broken relationship, Hector and Lilia never moved on from the loss of their daughter, which couldn’t be explained until a man from their past comes back into their lives. They reconnect with him in the hopes that he can lead them to Alejandra. Doing so means once again taking risks — both dangerous and illegal — to find the means to find Alejandra. Not knowing if she’s alive or dead fuels the risks, as well as the story’s climax, which is the one bright spot in the novel.
My first complaint with Border Child is that the writing lacks emotion, and the little feeling it does have seems cliché and poorly written. I expect a story like this one to pull at my heartstrings, which is why I refused to read it for so long. It did nothing of the sort. Sentence construction never varies and often gets directly to the point, making the story seem abrupt and simple. To be frank, it’s kind of boring, and it failed to captivate me.
I didn’t even realize my second grievance was really gnawing at me until I read a review by Publishers Weekly. And then I was mad at myself for not pinpointing it myself.
“… [Hector and Lilia’s] story depends too heavily on stereotypes of people and circumstances from both sides of the border …”
This critique is accurate and calls out the novel for some injustices (despite Stone’s best attempts to prove a point). Hector and Lilia come from an impoverished village, and the decisions they make often stem from naivety and ignorance. For example, immediately following the separation from Alejandra when they briefly lived in the U.S., they worked for the stereotypical white savior who treated them well and showed them the power and possibility of realizing the American dream. Furthermore, back home in Mexico, instances of superstitions and natural medicine come across as cliché for people born and raised in a small village. All together, these characteristics diminish the plot’s potential poignancy. By pigeonholing her characters and their ways of life, by not showing us diverse scenes of immigration, Stone fails to fully represent the situation.
But the book does receive two flames instead of one. And those largely reflect Alejandra’s fate — the aforementioned climax. Without giving too much away, her story, of which the details are shared in the last 30 or so pages, actually do prove how complex immigration matters are. They go beyond the illegality of crossing a made-up line. They stretch past right and wrong and muddy the waters — rightfully and truthfully so.
Immigration isn’t one issue; it’s a combination of many difficult truths, risks, and unimaginable pain. Stone encompasses these complexities into Alejandra’s story. While she might use stereotypes to portray the other characters, Alejandra — and how her parents respond to her circumstance — is far from stereotypical. And that’s what gives this novel a slight edge.
Immigration can’t have been an easy topic to approach, so props to Stone for taking a chance. It pays off in her ending, but because that’s the only section and feature that garners praise, it doesn’t redeem the novel. This is such a contentious and heartbreaking topic in real life, so it deserves more than what this book can give.