American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Published by Balzer + Bray
Fabiola Toissant and her mother move from Haiti to the United States to live with Fabiola’s aunt and three cousins, but something goes wrong at the airport and her mother is detained by customs in New Jersey. Sixteen-year-old Fabiola is left to navigate America, including her American cousins, her new high school, the gritty Detroit neighborhood where her aunt lives, and a possible romance, all by herself. Desperate to secure her mother’s freedom, when an opportunity arises, Fabiola feels she has no choice but to make what is obviously a wrong decision in exchange for the possibility of her mother’s release.
WHY has this novel not received more attention? There are so many aspects of American Street to love. Fabiola as a character, for one, is interesting and complicated, a sweet person who is half innocent and half wiser than anyone else around her, a person who will do absolutely anything for family but isn’t totally clear on what exactly “anything” could possibly entail. She is a person who loves from the deepest, truest part of herself, who sees others for who they really are, but is guarded with her heart and doesn’t necessarily trust people even when she can believe that they are being genuine with her.
The novel itself is partly about the immigrant experience and partly about the culture in a place like Detroit. The immigrant experience, the bad and the good, is stuffed into every corner of Fabiola’s story – her assimilation into American high school, from making friends to understanding how papers are graded to understanding how to navigate the social hierarchies that exist, to learning about buying and selling drugs, and everything in between; her total surprise and lack of understanding at her mother’s detention in New Jersey (even down to thinking they could just drive over to New Jersey and get her until her cousins explained to her how these things work); her belief that just because her mother did nothing wrong means she should automatically get to stay in the US – it’s all there, good, bad, indifferent. The way that Zoboi managed to showcase this immigrant experience, which is I’m sure different for every single person who comes to this country, was really incredible. The culture in Detroit is something I’m not super familiar with but it seemed to me that she painted a very realistic picture of life there. The way that Zoboi showed the desperation that some of the characters felt – like Chantal, a straight A student who was headed for an Ivy League school but stayed home to attend community college to be there for her mother and sisters – did feel authentic to me and true to the culture and life many people likely experience in Detroit.
The ending of this book was not my favorite, but I do think that Zoboi handled it in the most gentle way possible while keeping the story in line with what could most realistically happen to these characters. I am not sure I totally agree with what she chose to do with everyone’s individual stories but I can say that I get where she’s coming from and I certainly believed the ending.
So I really liked this book! Please read it because it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere near the praise or attention it deserves. Highly recommended!