Fabiola was born in the US, but has grown up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, all her life. Now she and her mother are returning to the US, hoping for la belle vie — the good life. But despite preparing all their papers with infinite care, there’s a catastrophe. Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration, and Fabiola must go on to her aunt Jo and her three cousins in Detroit — at the corner of American Street and Joy Road — to fight to get her mother back, and to navigate her new life alone.
One of the things I liked enormously about this book was Fabiola’s strong voice and presence. A lot of the books I read about immigrants tend to hew more or less closely to a certain trope that implies that life in the old country was simple and easy, if poor, whereas life in the US (or England, or whatever) is complicated and dangerous and difficult. Why is this a thing? When Fabiola arrives in the US, she has already dealt with dangerous streets, gangs, drugs, boyfriends, police, working hard in school to get a good education, making friends, and standing up to mean girls. The context in Detroit is different, of course, but she handles herself with strength and poise. The really hard things are more like what you get with culture shock: none of the food tastes right, and she loses weight. The houses aren’t colorful, they’re all grey. It’s way too cold. And she misses her mother shockingly.
Another really interesting thing about this novel is the way it presents vodou. Fabiola’s beliefs are woven all through her life. She watches for the way the gods open doors and offer clues to what she should do. She makes a shrine to pray for her mother each night. When people ask, curiously, about “that voodoo stuff,” she explains matter-of-factly about what’s going on. There’s a stripe of what feels like magical realism right through the middle of this novel — Papa Legba is a character, sort of — and it belongs here.
Ibi Zoboi’s American Street is billed as a young adult novel, but that’s mostly because it has a young adult protagonist. It’s stuffed with big emotions, subversions of ideas and policies, life-or-death decisions, plot twists, and a young woman at the center whose life in a new country is just beginning. Don’t expect a Disney ending, but expect to be satisfied (I was.) I enormously enjoyed this book, and definitely recommend it.