Though this novel stands on its own, Border Child resumes the story Michel Stone began in her 2012 book, The Iguana Tree, about a naïve Mexican couple who pay an unbearable price for their illegal journey to the United States.
Hector and Lilia bring tragedy on themselves when they leave their village in southern Mexico to get better work and education for their children in the United States. In their Oaxacan town, a small income goes a long way, given the mild climate, fresh food, and deep community ties. Their situation is not dire until their ambitions make it so. The question the novel may inspire is whether dreams should be limited by lines on maps and the harsh attitude toward immigrants in an era driven by populist politics.
A villain in Stone’s novels, as in the desperate migrations of real people around the world, is the human smuggler. The “coyote” is often part of the life-threatening calculus for people trying to escape violence, poverty, and environmental devastation in regions from Africa to the Middle East to Central America.
Border Child, published under the venerable Nan A. Talese imprint at Doubleday, begins with Hector and Lilia back in their village in Oaxaca, regretting the loss of opportunity they had found at a tree farm in South Carolina before they were deported. Their attempt to leave Mexico has alienated some of their fellow villagers, and Hector has been demoted from truck driver to grueling work in the agave fields.
They have a toddler son and Lilia is pregnant, but they are living a parent’s nightmare. Years earlier, when she recklessly chose to cross the border to Texas in pursuit of Hector, Lilia was convinced by her vicious coyote to hand her firstborn over to a woman who supposedly specialized in transporting infants. Lilia and Hector soon realized they were victims of a kidnapping. Not only did they lose their gamble for a new life in the U.S., but years have passed and they don’t know if their oldest child is dead or alive in some worse-than-death scenario.
When Hector catches a glimpse of Emmanuel, an old admirer of Lilia’s and the one who connected her to the duplicitous coyote, he pursues him to Acapulco, hoping for help in tracking down the kidnapper and finding the missing child.
A tale so sympathetic to its sweet but simple subjects could lose its ballast and become merely condescending. But Stone wisely provides critics among her characters, people as exasperated as a reader of the book might be by the poor judgment of its heroine. A midwife and old family friend of Lilia’s, for instance, “loathed their lack of allegiance to Mexico” and blames Lilia for their tragedy. “Their beautiful child, lost somehow at the border. Lost. How could that happen?”
Hector himself disavows his wife’s decision to leave the baby, “our most precious possession,” with a stranger: “I wasn’t involved in your dealing with that woman or with [the coyote], or with any of the decisions you made during your crossing,” he says.
When Hector turns up in Acapulco, he’s subjected to the pitiless assessment of a former rival. “Emmanuel saw a similarity between Lilia and Hector, but the characteristics that made Lilia so desirable, aside from her physical beauty, were her trusting nature and childlike simplicity, and these traits were ill suited in a man. They made Hector seem like a fool.”
In The Iguana Tree, Hector and Lilia make their separate ways to the border, and their trajectories diverge in Border Child, too. Hector stays in Acapulco to make some fast money to pay for his trip to the border-town orphanage where his daughter might be, a necessity that drives him to work in the city’s flourishing illegal economy. There he glimpses the horrific punishment that awaits those who break the rules of the underworld.
Stone, an alumna of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a recipient of the South Carolina Fiction Project Award, doesn’t develop Lilia’s character by exploiting her potentially intolerable guilt as a mother—Lilia is fairly uncomplicated, which makes her fairly uninteresting. But the author sustains an effective and relentless level of suspense along Hector’s path to Acapulco and the orphanage, simultaneously creating a wholly convincing landscape in the city and the country. And she brings the mystery of the missing child to an extraordinary but realistic conclusion.
Peggy Burch was books editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis for ten years, and she also worked as a deputy metro editor and Arts & Entertainment editor for the newspaper. She is a graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and holds a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Mississippi.
Tagged: 2017 Southern Festival of Books, Fiction