While Behold the Dreamers may be a fictional narrative, it is a powerful look into being an immigrant in America as told by an author who actually experienced the process firsthand. It contains insightful commentary on racism and white privilege in America in a behind-the-scenes way. Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers describes the hope that Obama gave African-Americans and African immigrants when he first entered the White House.
“Even in New York City, even in a place of many nations and cultures, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest. And why shouldn’t they? It was far easier to do so than to spend one’s limited energy trying to blend into a world one was never meant to be a part of.”
-Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers
From the back cover:
Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at their summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last imagine a brighter future.
However, the world of great privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ facades. Then the financial world is rocked with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global economy. Desperate to keep Jende’s job, which grows more tenuous by the day, the Jongas try to protect the Edwardses from certain truths, even as their own marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.
This novel really contains two stories- one of a wealthy Manhattanite business executive who loses his job and all hell breaks loose (basically), and the other of a hardworking, hopeful immigrant family struggling to make ends meet but doing everything they can to stay in America. These stories have been told before, but it’s the creativity Mbue uses to craft her novel that makes it extraordinary.
Sometimes I find myself struggling to really immerse myself into stories that are narrated in third person, but Behold the Dreamers gave me no trouble at all. I think part of it is because of the superb character development. I just had to keep reading to find out what was going to happen to Jende, Neni, and all of the characters I became invested in. Even side characters like Neni’s college professor had a purpose in the end. Mbue did a fantastic job of tying up all the loose ends to create a satisfying conclusion to her tale.
Read this one if you miss Obama (because who doesn’t?!).