So they sat beneath the statue of Christopher Columbus, side by side, hand in hand, surrounded by skateboarders and young lovers and homeless people, looking north as cars came around the circle and went up Central Park West. The spring air was crisper than she would have wished, but not crisp enough to send her rushing into the subway. And even if it had been, she would have stayed in the circle, because it wasn’t every night she got a chance to enjoy the sounds of the city and its millions of lights blinking around her, reminding her that she was still living her dream.
I waffled a bit in the middle of reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. As I wrote in a previous post, there was a moment when the pace lagged a bit, when I wasn’t sure it was holding my interest. But I wanted to finish the novel, and I am so glad that I did. I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads. It was a book that surprised me with its simple, quiet beauty and its wistful emotional tone.
It’s the story of the Jonga family from Cameroon, a husband (Jende,) wife (Neni) and their six year-old son, living and trying to make it in New York City. Jende’s cousin Winston has come to America some time before, and is now a successful lawyer. He sponsored Jende’s visa and tried to help him acclimate to the culture shock. Jende worked and saved as a taxi driver and was able to bring his family to America; Neni, hoping to become a pharmacist, has a student visa. As the novel opens it’s 2008. Through Winston’s connections Jende is hired as the chauffeur of Clark, a top banking executive at Lehmann Brothers on Wall Street. Clark and Jende get along so well that Clark’s wife Cindy ends up hiring Neni to work for her as well as a part-time caregiver to their son, Mighty. Things are going well, and the Jonga family’s standard of living improves. Over time, both Jongas become witness to troubles in the Edwards family. Their wealth and privilege conceals great loneliness and disconnection. As Lehmann Brothers implodes, the lives of both families are thrown into turmoil. Both Jende and Neni make questionable decisions as their family’s security is threatened.
It was easy to relate to Jende and Neni – they worked hard, saved willingly, and wanted to provide a better future for their family. They enjoyed the material and cultural gifts that living in New York City could provide, even as they marveled at how much money people spent on things here, and what that same amount would purchase back home in Cameroon.
She hadn’t expected the prices in New York to be the same as in Limbe, but she found it difficult not to be bothered whenever she bought a pound of shrimp for the equivalent of 5000 CFA francs – the monthly rent for a room with a shared outdoor bathroom and toilet for all the residents in a caraboat building. You have to stop comparing prices, Jende advised her whenever she brought up the issue. You keep comparing prices like that, he’d say, you’ll never buy anything in America. The best thing to do in this country, whenever you enter a store, is to ignore the exchange rate, ignore the advertisements, ignore what everyone else is eating and drinking and talking about these days, and buy only the things you need.
Their struggle to achieve the “American Dream,” to stay here in this country and try for a better life, even if it meant doing some things that compromised their dignity – this moved me greatly. Learning a little bit about Cameroon (a country I admit that I am woefully ignorant about) and placing myself in the Jendes’s shoes made me reflect on my own unearned blessings, simply by random luck of birthplace.
It would have been easy for Mbue to portray Clark and Cindy Edwards as heartless, mindless buffoons, but she gave them shades of complexity and depth. They were undoubtedly wealthy people by any standards, but they were not cruel or mean-spirited; rather, they seemed a bit clueless about the way the rest of the world lived. I especially enjoyed the rapport that Jende and Clark had. There is a lovely scene where both men sit on a bench in Hudson River Park and watch the sunset together. I was surprised by how much Clark opened up to Jende. Sadly, it seemed that he could talk to Jende in a way that he couldn’t connect with his wife.
Mbue puts very human faces on complicated issues of immigration and class privilege in America. Good fiction is one of the best tools we have to foster empathy among people of different countries, races, and economic classes. How I wish I could make certain politicians read this compassionate, humane, emotionally intelligent novel! How I wish that more Americans read immigrants’ stories, both fictional and biographical, period. But I can try to take solace in recommending this particular novel to library patrons and to you, dear blog reader. It is engaging literary fiction with appealing characters and plenty of questionable choices to ponder and debate. It would make an excellent pick for a book club. I now want to read and learn more about Cameroon, and I eagerly await Ms. Mbue’s next book.