American Street by Ibi Zoboi. Balzer + Bray, 2017.
Teenaged Fabiola was born in the US and raised in Haiti with her mother. They’ve been working for years to move in with Fabiola’s aunt, Matant Jo, and her three daughters, at their house on the corner of streets propitiously named American and Joy in Detroit. But when they arrive at New York on the way to Detroit, only Fabiola is allowed to continue. Her mother is detained and sent to New Jersey.
Fabiola is completely at a loss, and things don’t improve when she arrives in Detroit. Her aunt barely gets out of bed, no one cooks, and Fabiola is scolded for speaking Creole. She’s even told to let go of her traditional religion, as old superstitions best left in the old country.
She does her best to make her own way, starting by cooking meals for the familt. She finds signs of the Hatian lwa everywhere, most especially in the old homeless man everyone calls Bad Leg, who sits singing at the crossroads like Papa Legba. She builds on the phone-based friendship she’s had with her three cousins, known locally as the Three B’s: college-aged Chantal, the Brains, and fraternal twins Pri, Brawn, and Donna, Beauty. They convince her to go to school with them, make friends, and let their mother deal with trying to rescue Fabiola’s mother. American school is very different from school in Haiti, but Fabiola is used to working hard. She even meets a sweet boy, Kasim, improbably the best friend of Donna’s abusive boyfriend Dray.
But early on, she’s approached by a woman in a brown coat who offers her a deal: find out who supplied the bad drugs that killed a white girl in the nearby rich neighborhood, and she’ll free Fabiola’s mother. And Fabiola has to choose between her mother and the new life she’s been building.
This was a powerful and tragic book. I especially loved the strength of Fabiola’s faith to carry her through, even when the results were ambiguous, as prayer so often is. I did a project about the Haitian religion in library school, so I loved seeing and recognizing the loa. The difficulties of immigration and of abusive relationships are well portrayed here. I had a hard time with the attitude given here that the people in this neighborhood all had to choose between crime and destitution. I’m not in any position to pass judgment on the idea, but the Detroit shown here is a grim place indeed. Even though I wished for a happier ending, I’d say American Street deserves the praise it’s been getting.