walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Just Like Us_, Helen Thorpe

This is the monthly book group selection at the library in the town in NH I used to live in; the meeting is tomorrow night. I may post an update after that discussion.

Subtitled: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America

Helen Thorpe was herself born elsewhere and brought here as a baby and periodically contrasts her experiences with those of the young women she is following.

The book is definitely worth reading: Thorpe ably summarizes the ins and outs of immigration policy primarily with respect to the US/Mexico border. She provides a limited amount of information about the last immigration reform, and about the lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court that said you couldn't refuse education to illegal immigrants. Through the stories of the young women (one born in the US, a second one with papers, two without) as they go through their senior year of high school in Denver, and attend University of Denver (all four graduating in a timely manner), she also tracks the DREAM Act in its various incarnations. She also follows Tancredo's career as a Representative of Littleton and his run for the Republican nomination in 2008.

The author, Helen Thorpe, is a journalist, married to John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper at the time was Mayor of Denver and Michael Bennet was his Chief of Staff. Hickenlooper is currently the governor-elect of Colorado, and Michael Bennet was appointed to Salazar's Senate seat by the previous governor (also Democratic) -- a seat he recently successfully defended against tea party candidate Ken Buck. The book thus serves as a very valuable sidelight into Denver/Colorado politics.

Thorpe comes across as unbelievably white and myopically middle-class. As a journalist, she does a fantastic job of portraying herself in enough detail that the reader has a real chance to watch her make faux pas without end when interacting with the young women and their families, only some of which she appears aware of in the published work. (Either that or she's choosing to frame it and pace it for the idiot reader.) Thorpe attends class and a variety of school, social and other events with the women; she uses the classes as an opportunity to provide some theory about class, citizenship, social inequality, race, gender, poverty, blah, blah, bleeping, blah. It is not at all clear that Thorpe really internalized much of it, however.

Thorpe's writing style is very readable: she is clear and concise without being dry; she is informal without being chatty. Many of the quotes supplied throughout are from text messages, e-mails, situations in which there is every reason to believe she was running a tape recorder, or which were otherwise recorded (a televised debate, for example). I don't know whether Thorpe understands the ins-and-outs of how clothing, makeup and hair position women within the social strata occupied by the four women; she supplies almost enough detail of what they are wearing whenever she is with them that an alert reader could figure out a lot from it. Here, too, her white, middle-class myopia is evident in her constant surprise at the contrast between what the women look like, and the kinds of places they live. It's like she's never met a poor person before, or noticed them in a movie, or anything. Weird.

One of the two young women without papers contemplates returning to Mexico, thinking that from there, she might be able to get a legal entry visa and start the process to being legal in the US. With an undergraduate degree from a good US school, she thinks she might be able to get a job in Mexico. She is talked out of it by her mother (who is in Mexico, having been deported after using someone else's SSN and registration number to work a job at Goodwill) and a variety of other people. This is really the only point in the entire book where anyone appears to seriously contemplate that it might be possible to live in Mexico. This sort of bothered me, particularly since a lot of what the people in the book think of when they think of Mexico is Mexico-some-decades-ago -- a point which is made explicitly when the author goes to see that young woman's mother in Mexico.

Finally, virtually all of the families described in the book (not just the young women, but all of their relatives) have many children, starting when the mothers are quite young. One of the four young women is pregnant at 22, just after finishing college; she is at an age where many of the people in her world are convinced she is too old to get married. The author has trouble reconciling all of this, thinking that the young women have to choose between either living the mexicana life or opting for Anglo norms of late childbearing. There was a fantastic opportunity here to talk about how we _got_ to this norm of late childbearing, and the interaction of frequent and early childbearing and poverty in the US, but I think the book had already gotten a bit out of hand anyway and had to end somewhere.

I'm (sort of) looking forward to discussing this tomorrow night. There's a real risk the discussion will be a frustrating one for me, since I'll be wanting to critique the author and I don't think that's going to be where other people are coming from. I surely do sympathize with the women in their time at DU, not wanting to educate their fellow students, at least not the sheltered, wealthy ones who couldn't even imagine what it was like to live any way other than their own.

Apparently no one told Thorpe that "American" is not a term owned by people in the US to refer to themselves, and acting as if it is will piss off some number of people who also live in North, Central or South America, but not in the US.
Tags: book review, politics
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