Book Review: LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE, unaccompanied minors crossing borders

Luiselli, Valeria - Lost Children Archive (3)Lost Children Archive
Valeria Luiselli

A woman and her husband met in New York City while working on a sound project documenting the hundreds of languages spoken in the metropolis. After the four-year project concluded, they hadn’t made a plan. The woman wanted to document the sounds of children in the immigrant courts while the man wanted to capture an “inventory of echoes” of the Apaches, because “they were the last of something.” To complete his multi-year project, he had to relocate to the southwest, and he presented it as a fait accompli to the woman.

The two loaded up a used Volvo and headed cross-country, along with the boy, ten, and the girl, five, and they pass through Virginia, Tennessee, stopping at Graceland, making a stop in Oklahoma to visit the town Geronimo, where a confrontation with a local is tense until the parents say they are writing a screenplay for a spaghetti western. In Oklahoma, they stop at Fort Sill to see Geronimo’s grave; they are so disappointed to learn that Fort Sill is not Fort Still, the name they’d been using. Also in Oklahoma, they go to a lake to swim, and it’s one of my favorite scenes. One of the other women there is sitting in a chair at the shore, but instead of looking out over the lake, she’d looking back at the beach. My favorite moments in the novel are those rooted in detail, such as when the family stayed at motel dedicated to Elvis or when they fight over what to listen to in the car.

One of the things the parents decide the children shouldn’t hear is a series of stories about unaccompanied, undocumented children reaching the Mexican border. This story is personal to the woman since her friend, Manuela, had two daughters in the system. The girls were scheduled to be deported; instead, they disappeared, but Manuela believed they would find her in New York. At the same time, the woman was reading Elegies for Lost Children, a book within a book, chronicling the journey of seven children under the care of a coyote.

Still, when the woman learns that a group of undocumented children is being sent home, she learns the location of the airstrip and the family rushes to watch the children file onto the small craft and the plane take off, after which the mother flails in rage, hurling insults at the border patrol officers, “until I feel my husband’s arms surrounding me from behind, holding me, tight. Not an embrace but a containment.”

As the family approaches Apacheria, their destination, the boy takes more agency, clearly having heard more than the parents realized. With his sister, he thinks he may be able to save his parents’ marriage and solve the problem of the lost children, though he doesn’t understand the danger he’s putting them in.

A very unusual novel, Lost Children Archive recounts the unnamed family’s road trip but also the story of the (named) undocumented children traveling with a coyote in the fictional Elegies for Lost Children. At times, the two stories overlap. Parallels, too, are drawn between the forcible removal of the Native Americans and the deportation of the immigrants as well as with children on the orphan trains running from New York to the midwest.

Other texts are woven into the narrative such as Lord of the Flies, The Road, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Circles, cycles, echoes, and repetition appear frequently.

The book contains sections that are lists of inventories of the boxes belonging to the man, woman, and boy, including pictures which are reproduced. The woman’s box was full of material for her project on undocumented children, and she’d collected duplicates of mortality reports which were heartbreaking, perhaps even more so because of their dry, clinical language.

I liked Lost Children Archive less when it veered toward the philosophical (often unnecessary because the narrative unfurled the theme) or times when it seemed to try too hard. An entire section (about the length of a chapter), for example, was a single paragraph. While I can identify reasons for that choice, it didn’t make it any more pleasant to read. At the end of the book, Luiselli included an author’s note with a statement on her beliefs on intertextuality, listing key sources and “borrowed” phrases. I didn’t know whether to be thankful, because I did miss some of the references, or irritated, because the note was a bit condescending.

Overall, Lost Children Archive, though, was successful in its risk-taking and lovely in its writing. I learned more about the harrowing journeys undertaking by child immigrants and feel disbelief that the United States doesn’t just gather them in our arms and say, “There, there.”

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