Jennine Capo Crucet’s “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” is a novel set during the Elian Gonzalez conflict of the late 90’s. A young woman, Lizet, finds herself coming home for Thanksgiving from her first year at college at the same time as Elian arrives into Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
The main conflict in the novel is Lizet coming to terms with being the first in her family to attend college. She’s struggling not just with homesickness, but with culture shock, academic rigor, implicit bias, and feeling like she’s abandoned her family. She’s also processing a sudden change in her family makeup and feels overwhelmed with all of these changes.
Throughout the novel, Ms. Crucet crafts non-archetyped characters. While many of the characters seem like they would fit into neat little stereotyped boxes, we are presented with nuance and development that gives us a more complex view the world in Hialeah and Little Havana. Specifically, we are shown the characters’s motivations for their actions. While it’s hard to agree/affirm their decisions, there’s no denying that the characters feel that they are making the best decision they can with the life they’re facing.
Several of the minor conflicts that are developed really hit home with me. The first is the subtle racism and implicit bias that Lizet faces when she arrives at her college in New York. The way her roommate and neighbors treat her, you’d think they’d never met another hispanic girl. They ask her the most stereotypical and patronizing questions that made me roll my eyes with the ignorance of it all. Even while I’m face-palming the girls’ actions and questions, once again Ms. Crucet’s sharp writing keeps these White girls from being demonized. Yes, they are ignorant, but again, it’s because they’ve never been taught or exposed to a world outside their privileged bubble.
This conflict bleeds into another sub-conflict that is woven into the plot of the novel. Socio-economics plays a big factor into how students relate to one another, and to how Lizet’s community views her as she steps into a world that they see as not theirs. Lizet soon meets other students from similar socio-economic statuses and realizes that while they may not be all the same race, they have similar conflicts and can relate to the trials overcoming these obstacles.
This was one of those books I wanted everyone around me to read just so I could talk about it with them. When art imitates life, it’s hard not to want to hear how others related to the conflicts or their thoughts on how character development played out. The “real” factor of the book was the most moving element of this book. It felt like any of these characters could be a real person. They were all so complex it made me want to follow each of them around separately just so I could find out more of their story.
I appreciated that the conflicts in the book were developed in such a way that it didn’t seem to overtake the characters. I didn’t feel that this book was “about” race, class, immigration, or higher-ed. Yet, you can’t ignore that these topics are part of Lizet’s experience. This is a highly recommended read. Hat’s off to you, Ms. Crucet!