Confession: this book is my library’s book club’s selection for February. My current small group meets during book club, so for February and March, the plan was to quietly read along with the group and just not attend the meetings. Except I’m reading more than I anticipated and I read next month’s book like three weeks early. Whoops.
But honestly, the book was that good. It was a refreshing change of pace from the other books I had been reading at the time and was just what I needed.
TW: violence, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, family fighting, theft
Behold the Dreamers tells the story of Jende Jonga, his wife Nnedi, and their son, who immigrated from Cameroon to New York City.. In the fall of 2007, Jende starts to work as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an executive for Lehman Brothers. Jende and Nnedi are ecstatic about the money Jende is making, planning to put some of it to Neni’s college education, some to save for their son’s future, some for Jende’s legal battle for asylum to get his green card, and the rest for whatever the future holds.
When the market crashes in 2008, Jende and Neni find all of their dreams to be interrupted. Jende can’t find work. Neni is expecting their second child and has to take a leave from school, which could harm her visa status. Their marriage starts to crumble under the strain. They watch the Edwards family disintegrate. The dreams for their future begin to dissolve and the Jongas are desperate to find a way to cling to the American Dream they were promised.
I loved so much about this book. So much. The title itself is so powerful. A command to behold those who dare to dream in a time and place where they are not promised much. That power reverberates into the novel.
My dad works in insurance and finance. I remember how our family changed when the market crashed, though I was thirteen and not super aware of how deeply the world was rocked. When Jende and Nnedi see the ways the Edwards family is shaken, I saw that reflected in my own life.
But what I loved most about this novel was the look at the crash through the eyes of immigrants. The Jongas came to America to find something better only to have that dream snatched from them through no fault of their own. In my privilege, I hadn’t thought about how hard this recession was for immigrant families, who were absolutely not getting hired. As Jende remarked to his wife, if white people weren’t getting hired, how could he, an African with dubious immigration status, possibly get a job?
The writing is beautiful and thoughtful. It rings with truth. The author, Imbolo Mbue, is also from Cameroon and experience poverty during the recession, finding herself unemployed in 2009, while starting to write this novel.
Chapters are focalized through either Jende or Neni, offering two different perspectives on situations and two different dreams for the future. THis allows both character to invoke empathy, even though they often differ on ways to move forward or how they define the American Dream.
If you like family stories, books that offer new perspectives, or literary fiction in general, I recommend this one. It’s easy to read, though it moves a bit slower than I personally would like.