the promised land ?

8427989Illegal by Bettina Restrepo

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2011

251 pages (+glossary), hardcover

Pulled from my Concenter List.

Mature 10 & up, or aged 12 & up.

A promise.


A promise that we would be together on my fifteenth birthday . . .

Instead, Nora is on a desperate journey far away from home. When her father leaves their beloved Mexico in search of work, Nora stays behind. She fights to make sense of her loss while living in poverty—waiting for her father’s return and a better day. When the letters and money stop coming, Nora decides that she and her mother must look for him in Texas. After a frightening experience crossing the border, the two are all alone in a strange place. Now, Nora must find the strength to survive while aching for small comforts: friends, a new school, and her precious quinceañera.

Bettina Restrepo’s gripping, deeply hopeful debut novel captures the challenges of one girl’s unique yet universal immigrant experience. ~publisher’s comments.

I would really like to paper several Texas towns and acquaintances with Bettina Restrepo’s novel. I think it important and would be a brilliant source of classroom reading: a good springboard for valuable conversation.

Nora and her family’s life hadn’t always been so desperate. They were happy and thriving in their small town in Mexico. Things happened to change this, drought, recession. When I was telling my daughter about Illegal, I said, “Remember how we had to move to find work; how we had to depend so much on others it was frightening; how a few times Sean had to go work in another state for long stretches while we stayed behind until a contract was up or it was stable enough to follow? In Illegal it was similar; and it was harder, because there was much more to complicate matters.”  N’s heart was already pricked though and she could understand Nora and her family’s decisions, their need to make the hard choices that meant survival. Illegal is a timely novel for American audiences whether rural, suburban, or urban dwelling; in spite of the region or state.  The back of the book states that “we are all immigrants,” but novel strikes more deeply with the invocation that we are all human beings.

I told Natalya that the title refers to Nora and her family’s status, but that it could easily take on other nuances; such as a descriptor for the way people treat one another, or allow them to suffer. Like the novel, I avoid political soap boxes and stick to the incontrovertible evidence that we create inhumane circumstances and unnecessary risks because we lack compassion, and perhaps awareness.

The characters of Arturo and Aurora and Nora are the kind of citizens a country desires. Arturo is hard-working to provide for his family, to pay his bills, a good man. Aurora works just as hard maintaining the home and estate, is a loving wife and mother. Nora longs to be educated, to find a career that will better the lives of those she cares about—to return to her home in Mexico to help revitalize it there. She is a good girl who believes stealing is a mortal sin, who fiercely defends her friends. She is determined to learn English. She is compassionate toward those who have been made vulnerable, the homeless/mentally ill (Mr. Mann), the abused (Flora), the discriminated against and isolated (Keisha), and those in mourning (Manuela/Jorge). Perhaps some of her compassion stems from her own experiences, which is an encouragement for reader’s to revisit our own recent and long-term memories, and maybe our own belief’s (as Nora does).

Nora is not sainted fortunately. She is compellingly flawed. She is a girl who is growing up fast in the face of difficulties. In differing ways, each of the girls presented in the novel (Nora, Flora, Keisha) have grown up too quickly (especially by our softening depictions), and yet Restrepo does not rob them completely. Their youth is there, hopeful and refreshing against the hardscrabble landscape.

Indeed, Illegal is held just short of torturous; sacrificing an edgy read for a more palatable and informative take. I think the book has the potential to deeply move, but I believe that if some edge were taken the potential would read “guarantee.” But Restrepo has a great deal to cover, and a perspective to relay which would be lost if the dramatics proved too high. As it is, she has moments that work to evoke credible sorrow and credible fear.

Where there is strength and determination and faith, there resides opportunity. In Illegal, opportunity resides in people who are willing to take chances, risk their own comforts to aide another human being. And it is rewarded! Just the same, Nora and her family do not escape tragedy. But many things do work in Nora’s favor, at least. She is indeed, as her mother calls her, a lucky girl. The weight of their fears and the desperation of circumstance is kept from fully depressing the reader with Restrepo’s hopeful vision of a girl who will not allow herself to be a victim.

An aspect of interest is how the U.S. does not come out shiny in the treatment of its own legal residents; nor can it be assumed that its neighborhoods are all that welcoming of their own community. The gangs are brutalizing the neighborhood as well as their own initiates. Races are separated out into discreet neighborhoods, not to mingle without repercussion. The poor work hard to get by on a convoluted system based in impenetrable bureaucracy. The observations are there, some more glaring beneath Nora’s gaze than others. She is disappointed. And she is not the only one.

Illegal has a religious component. Nora wrestles with her grandmother’s faith, while necessarily establishing a spirituality of her own. I am fairly ignorant of the religion/culture Nora references and I found it very interesting how it moved the plot, as well it offered a level of verisimilitude. Nora is both comforted and haunted by her religious beliefs, but as a part of her that can be with her in either place (Mexico or U.S.) it makes for an intriguing constant that informs her and the plot. Indeed, how many immigrant stories (and colonization efforts) who share an element of a Calling, some divine instruction?

With Nora as our first person narrator, we are privy to her struggles, and rely on her curiosity and connection to her surroundings. Nora may occasionally wax poetic, and she may have many of the pre-occupations a girl her age has, but I don’t think she would be too off-putting for a male reader. She is earnest and charming and a very important witness, but I don’t think that should be too off-putting in the conversation about an immigrant’s struggle, legal or no. Bettina Resptrepo’s Illegal is a good quick read that will hopefully do more than entertain and provoke an intellectual exercise or two.


Bettina Restrepo’s website, where she invites further conversation and interest.

I would also recommend The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, a novel set in the early 1960’s when Fidel Castro comes into power and thousands of children are sent to the United States to escape his indoctrination (among other things). Lucia is the same age as Nora, and she too provides insight into the struggles of survival amidst foreign climes; she proves another reluctant but determined heroine.

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

4 thoughts on “the promised land ?

  1. Dear Leslie,

    I wanted to email you privately – but I couldn’t find a link on your blog so please excuse my public gushing.

    I am so deeply moved by your review. You touched on, so eloquently, the deeper issues of the novel that drive right to the soul.

    My hope is that it will be taught in the classrooms and be a source of conversation, learning and endless ripples of thought.

    To be honest, I’m a bit weepy over your comment comparing “we are all immigrants” to “we are all human” ~ how true.

    I’m touched and I’m filled with gratitude in having you for a reader. It’s these small moments, when my world struggles to make sense, that I know I’m doing the right thing by creating stories that (hopefully) will emotionally move.

    Thank you, Bettina

    ps – if you would like to share your response that you had with your daughter (especially about Sean), I collect stories on my website. Feel free to email me.

    1. Bettina,
      I am glad my review did your book some level of justice, as I felt grateful to have read it. I am sincere in my hope to see this book read, and in the classrooms especially. I wish you every success with Illegal.

      I am glad to have encouraged you, because you are doing the right thing, and because (rather selfishly) I look forward to more of your stories.

      It was wonderful finding your website and seeing your forum for people to share their stories. In Illegal, you spur a longing for change–and a desire to swap stories–to reminisce and inform. I will be stopping by with a story or two of our own.

      Thank you.


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