Fabiola Toussaint and her mother arrive in the United States eager to join Fabiola’s aunt and cousins and begin their own version of the American dream. Instead her mother is detained by ICE at a New Jersey facility where she faces deportation back to Haiti. Fabiola, born in the United States, has to fly to Detroit on her own.
In Detroit Fabiola finds new friends and first love, but she also learns that nothing in America is what she imagined back home in Haiti–not even her new home with her relatives at the corner of American Street and Joy Road.
Fabiola clings to her faith and her Vodou iwas for guidance but she isn’t sure that Papa Legba’s riddles or help from other iwas like beautiful Ezili will be enough to protect her family and bring her mother to her. How much will Fabiola have to sacrifice to help her mother and herself grab their own small piece of American joy? How far would you go for the same thing? in American Street (2017) by Ibi Zoboi.
American Street is Zoboi’s debut novel.
This novel is the story of one girl’s efforts to grab onto the American dream for herself and her mother, it’s the story of a family and the secrets they keep to survive, it’s a story about the immigrant experience, it’s a story of first love. All of these stories play out against the larger story of the house at the corner of American Street and Joy Road in Detroit.
Fabiola thinks transitioning to life in the US will be easy. She already speaks English and she attended an American school in Haiti. None of that prepares her for the meanness she finds on some of Detroit’s streets not to mention the slang and fast-paced language. She expects her American relatives will follow Haitian traditions but is surprised to find her aunt barely leaves her bedroom. Fabiola’s cousins are equally mystifying. Chantal studies hard and is working her way through community college. But what about her mysterious phone calls? Princess only answers to Pri and dresses like a boy. Then there’s beautiful Primadonna “Donna” who wears her beauty like armor and fools no one as she tries to hide the extent of her turbulent (and violent) relationship with her boyfriend.
This story is also imbued with an element of magic realism. Fabiola is a faithful and devout practioner of Vodou. She and her mother have spent years praying for their relatives to be well in the US. When she arrives in Detroit, one of the first things Fabiola does is assemble her altar and pray for her reunion with her mother. Throughout American Street Fabiola uses her familiarity with Vodou and her iwas–spirit guides–to make sense of her new life in America. Fabiola’s choice to interpret her strange new world in this way takes on a weightier meaning when she begins to see her iwas in the real life figures around her.
Zoboi demonstrates a considerable ear for voice with dialog as well as short segments between chapters in which various characters relate the stories that brought them to this point. Fabiola’s first person narration in the rest of the novel is beautiful with a measured cadence and a unique perspective that comes from spending her formative years in Haiti.
American Street is a timely and thoughtfully written novel. Fabiola’s introduction to America is authentic and filled with moments of beauty as she also finds new friends and falls in love for the first time. The happenings on the corner of American Street and Joy Road add a mystery to this rich plot and help the story unfold to a heartening but bittersweet conclusion. A must read. Highly recommended.
Possible Pairings: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak