TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Valeria Luiselli is only 35, but she's won two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award and has been twice nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Luiselli, who was born in Mexico City, has just written a new novel that focuses on migrant children at the southwestern border. It's called "Lost Children Archive." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Valeria Luiselli is on to readers like me - readers with a skeptical attitude towards novels ripped from today's headlines. I always wonder whether the social commentary in such fiction will be its big selling point, compensating for a thinly imagined, overly reportorial narrative. Luiselli's latest novel is called "Lost Children Archive," and it's about the so-called border crisis, focusing on the migration of thousands of unaccompanied minors who've crossed from Central America and Mexico into the U.S., seeking asylum. She's written about this issue before in nonfiction, a long essay called "Tell Me How It Ends," borne of her own work as a volunteer court translator for undocumented children in New York.
The book was structured around a series of official questions the children answered, as well as a car trip Luiselli and her own family took to the border. That same scaffolding pokes through "Lost Children Archive." The main narrator here is an unnamed woman researching a sound documentary on migrant children. And the novel is composed mostly of her thoughts on the road trip she takes with her family from New York to the desert reaches of the great Southwest.
As to my skepticism about whether or not such a baldly relevant political subject as the fate of undocumented migrant children can be transformed into art, Luiselli's narrator - her semi stand-in in this novel - asks those same questions. She worries whether her documentary will be moralistic, boring and heavy-handed. In response, the novel Luiselli has created vaults over those pitfalls, thanks mostly to the inexhaustible buoyancy of its language. But be forewarned. That soaring writing style is practically the only uplifting element in this fictional travelogue. Luiselli shuns the jauntier adventures of a Kerouac or Whitman, and instead sticks to the American Gothic pathways charted by Poe, Carson McCullers and Cormac McCarthy. Indeed, audios of some of their books are packed like roadmaps of hell into the glove compartment of the family car.
When "Lost Children Archive" opens, our narrator, her husband, 5-year-old daughter and 10-year-old stepson are in their car driving over the George Washington Bridge. Even before they reach New Jersey, there are signs that the narrator's marriage, like the country she and her family are exploring, is splitting apart. The narrator's husband, who's also a sound documentarian, wants to travel not to the border but to Apacheria, the Southwestern lands that were once Apache territory. In fact, he wants to move there for a few years to create a soundscape of the ghosts of Cochise, Geronimo and what he calls the last free peoples on the American continent, the last to surrender. Our narrator, in contrast, wants to work on a soundscape giving voice to child refugees, the lost children, children who have lost the right to a childhood.
Mile after mile, tension tamps down the atmosphere in that car, an accompaniment to the unspooling, ragged roadscape (ph) of motels, Dunkin Donuts franchises and big box stores. Our narrator describes her husband as silent, remote, persistent in his task behind the wheel. The sun has set. The light is blue-gray. And he focuses on the road ahead as if underlining a long sentence in a difficult book. Who can blame the kids for asking every so often, are we there yet?
But lest we readers also weary of the emotional flatness of this trip, Luiselli takes lots of detours in subject and style. "Lost Children Archive" is epic in its assured embrace of American history, literature, pop culture and, yes, politics. Luiselli smoothly integrates different ways of telling the same story - fragments of poems, a bravura sentence that runs on for 20 pages, Polaroid photos and other documents, like migrant mortality reports. Throughout, we hear about children from the past, who also became lost in America - children packed into slave ships or orphan trains. And towards the end of the novel, the boy takes over the narration to give a harrowing account of how he and his sister got lost in the great emptiness of the Southwestern desert.
That's really the point of all of Luiselli's elegant exertions in this novel - to draw readers into the gut realization that if not for luck, the grace of God, money, whatever, those lost children could be our children. Not every reader is going to like that message. Not everyone is going to want to go along for this rough ride. But there should be no worries about Luiselli's up-to-the-minute subject. "Lost Children Archive" ratifies the power of great fiction to expose our deepest desires, fears and hopes as we stumble through a world we share with others yet barely understand.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Lost Children Archive" by Valeria Luiselli. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Mike Pompeo with Mattathias Schwartz, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. In the current issue, he writes about what he calls Pompeo's balancing act as secretary of state, translating Trump to the rest of the world. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SERGIO AND ODAIR ASSAD'S "JOBINIANA NO 1")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media. Is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SERGIO AND ODAIR ASSAD'S "JOBINIANA NO 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.