Review: Araceli the Refugee

I heard about this book when John Arms came into the coffee shop fresh from a photo shoot for a Pacific Sun story. He had some pictures he thought turned out really well, I agreed, and said the subject, Byron Park, was particularly interesting.

So when the story ran and talked about Byron Park's new novel Aracelli the Refugee: An Immigration Novel, I wandered over to the bookstore and ordered it.

In 1982, Araceli Sandoval flees El Salvador after being raped, shot, and left for dead as revenge for her father's defection from the Treasury Police force. After failing to make a new home in Mexico she ends up in the Bay Area, caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare as she attempts to keep from being deported back to El Salvador, and certain death.

Park was an INS officer who decided he was on the wrong side and turned to deportation defense work. This book reads as his attempt to open the eyes of US citizens to the evils he sees being done in our names, both as foreign policy and immigration policy, and a recurring theme is the difference between the actions of those who live in the US versus the government that alleges to represent us:

"The Norteamericanos have what we want, I tell you --- money, jobs, and security. When we go there, to El Norte, they share these things with us --- some small things anyway. They don't compel us to be slaves. Don't confuse their government with their people."

One of the problems with first time novelists, especially novelists who are writing with a deliberate message, is that they tend to get caught up in the scenery. Often this is a liability, too much local detail confuses the story and makes for slow reading. In the case of Aracelli the Refugee, however, that layer of slightly clumsy local detail lends a veracity to other details that might come off as outlandish. It's clear that several people are ripped from life rather than created as characters meant to serve the dramatic needs of the story.

Despite the local detail the story reads quickly. There are no long soliloquies on the meanings of actions, perhaps a few questions written on the nose, but the pace keeps up quickly, the plot points all tie back together, and he provides both an ambiguous ending for those of us who don't like everything tied up in a pretty bow, and a slightly believable prologue which ties up the tale in a relatively upbeat ending.

A good eye-opener into some of the reasons we have foreign policy disasters, a look at "the system" of immigration, at least in California, and how it's played by both sides, and a compelling tale of a woman tossed by circumstance in situations she doesn't understand coming into her own.


Monday, February 5th, 2001