Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue, author; Prentice Onayemi, narrator
To Jende Jonga, from Cameroon, America was truly the land of opportunity. In Limbe, where he was born, it was beautiful and the people were always smiling and friendly. However, there, it was impossible to improve one’s circumstances. If you were poor, you and your descendants were trapped in an endless circle of poverty.
After acquiring a temporary visa to come to America, through somewhat nefarious means, Jende sought out the help of an immigration lawyer to obtain permanent status and was advised to seek asylum to accomplish his goal. Soon, after many menial jobs, his cousin Winston, also a lawyer, helped him to get a job with the wealthy Edwards family, as a chauffeur.
Jende worked hard and saved his money. He soon sent for his wife, Neni, and his small son, Liomi, to join him in America. Although, they lived in an apartment with roaches and it was a multi-floor walk-up, it seemed like nirvana to them because this was a country that offered opportunity for all, but especially for their children. Neni enrolled in school and was studying to become a pharmacist. Soon she was expecting another child and a daughter was born. They often sent money home to their family, as well. Things were looking up. As a chauffeur, Jende got to know Mr. Edwards and his son Vince very well, as well as their youngest child, Mighty. Neni, too, sometimes worked for the Edwards family as a nanny and also as a server at parties. She got to know Cindy Edwards and her son Mighty very well. Both Jende and Neni, unwittingly, became confidants of their employers, and soon, they would find themselves in compromised situations that questioning their loyalties to either their spouses or their employer, forcing them to choose one over the other..
In 2008, the country was hit with an economic downturn and Mr. Edwards, a partner in Lehman Bros. was suddenly out of a job when the firm collapsed and was not rescued by the government. Although he soon got another job with Barclays, his wife began to suspect that he was unfaithful. She placed Jende in an untenable situation, demanding that he reveal where he took Mr. Edwards everyday. Because of his background, he assumed that the man in the family was in charge and made all the decisions. He chose to trust Mr. Edwards and remained loyal to him. He kept his secrets from Cindy and Neni. At this same time, Cindy Edwards was abusing drugs and alcohol, and Neni chose to remain loyal to her husband who demanded that she remain neutral and not get involved with the family; she said nothing about it to Mr. Edwards.
When Jende suddenly found himself unemployed, he realized that America was not all it wais cracked up to be, and he didn’t know if he had the strength to continue to fight to remain in the country. Many questions arose. Immigration had turned down his asylum petition, and he had to appeal and appear before a judge. He knew he might be turned down again. Neni didn’t want to leave school. One child was now an American citizen having been born in New York. How they solved their problems and reacted to their difficulties is really what the book seems to be about. The clash of the American culture with the Cameroon culture and the clash of the rights of women in America and the rights of women in a Muslim country became front and center. As Neni became more independent and sure of herself, Jende seemed to grow more and more threatened and insecure. As she began to love America more and more, he became more and more homesick for Cameroon and their happier, more easygoing way of life. He became more and more disillusioned with the social climbing culture of America as Neni became more and more enamored with the materialism of America.
I was left thinking about many questions which would be great to discuss in a book group. What was the effect of the secrets they kept, on each of their lives? What was the effect of their different dreams, hopes and views about their future on their lives? Who was ultimately in charge in America, the male or female, husband or wife? Who was ultimately in charge in Cameroon? How did the inability to deal with reality effectively, affect each of the characters? Both the immigrant family and the American family had problems. How did each attempt to solve them? Which was more successful? How would you describe Vince’s attitude about life? Who had the right idea about how to live and what was important? Whose values were least important? Whose values were to be most admired? Were the wounds of these characters self-inflicted? Which character achieved his/her dream? Each of the characters was caught between competing lifestyles and loyalties. Could the situation have worked out differently if different choices were made or was the end inevitable?
The problems of American families that have everything and the immigrant families who have nothing were well contrasted and both fell short of achieving the happiness each was seeking. The rights of women in both cultures were examined. The behavior of men in both cultures was scrutinized. The inability of both cultures to fully comprehend the problems of the other was documented. Their prejudices were highlighted. It was interesting to see which of the sexes in each culture had the most power, in certain instances, and in what ways they asserted that power. In both cultures, it would seem that circumstances decided whether or not the capacity to do good or evil resided within them. The problems of immigrants in America was very well discussed and exposed.