The Barbarian Nurseries

Araceli saw her standing in the world with a new startling clarity. She lived with English-speaking strangers, high on a hill with the huge windows and the smell of solvents, and lacked the will to escape what she had become. Hector Tobar

I was born in Los Angeles, lived there throughout my youth, and left in 1954 to begin college. The town was not much more than a large pueblo then, although it grew rapidly in both numbers and prosperity during the war.

Since then, I’ve returned for brief visits, but after the early eighties I’ve never been back. Hector Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries brings me up to date on what the city is like these days. It bears only a passing resemblance to city that I knew.

Today it is a city of about four million individuals, largely composed of immigrants in which people of Hispanic or Latino origin constitute almost 50% of the population. Its population in my day was a little over one million, predominately Caucasian; today they constitute 25% of the cities’ population.

As the various ethnic groups who live there try to arrive at a common understanding of one another, more often then not, they fail. This becomes the focus of Tobar’s new novel primarily shaped around the life of Araceli Ramirez, the Mexican housekeeper of Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson and their three children.

They live in the posh gated community of the not entirely fictional Laguna Rancho Estates. “…this house on a hill high above the ocean, on a cul-de-sac absent of pedestrians or playing children, absent of traffic, absent of the banter of vendors and policemen. It was a street of long silences.”

Scott’s millions made with a software company that folded during the stock market bust are rapidly disappearing. One by one, they cut back on the staff maintaining their estate until Araceli is the only one left.

Araceli is from Mexico City where she studied art, but economic hardship forced her to abandon her studies and come to America as so many others have. “All was well in her universe and then suddenly, and often without any discernible reason, she felt this vague but penetrating sense of impending darkness and loss.”

It arrives after a violent altercation between Scott and Maureen over the cost of a new desert garden Maureen had ordered that led them, independently, to leave home--Maureen with her baby Samantha to a spa, Scott to the home of an admiring co-worker--each expecting the other will stay to care for their two boys. Days follow in which neither one returns, leaving Araceli to wonder how much longer it will be before they do.

After four days of caring for the boys, with food running low and out of oncern for the boys, she realizes she has to do something. All she knows is that the boys’ grandfather lives somewhere in Los Angles. She takes his photo, with an address on the back, the two boys, and sets off on a search for him. They take a bus, train, and begin walking all over the distant, dangerous, unknown neighborhoods of the city. At this point, the novel begins to come alive.

They go from place to place without finding him, staying overnight at the homes of sympathetic strangers, eating strange food, worried about confrontations, all the while Araceli aware of what’s in store for her. The parents arrive back home, call the police believing the boys have been abducted, a media frenzy begins, social and racial conflict erupts, as she is accused of child abuse, endangerment or kidnapping, and hauled in and out of court, in a generalized institutional overreaction.

Eventually, she is able to communicate the facts of the matter to a sympathetic and colorful woman in Child Protective Services and a smart pro bono attorney. She is absolved of any crime, the judge berates the ambitious assistant district attorney and Araceli heads off toward an unknown destination. She has no choice as an illegal immigrant.

“…the absences and inequalities that were the core injustice of her existence. It is a big world, divided between rich and poor, just like those humorless lefties at the university said. What would I have become with a mother like Maureen…?”

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