Global crisis and the American Dream in Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers”
We start each book club meeting with an icebreaker. Most recently our icebreaker question was, “What was happening in your life around 2007-2008?” Responses ranged from “getting comfortable in high school,” to “feeling on top of the world … without a worry in the world during college,” to being deeply impacted by the financial crisis as full-fledged adults with mortgages and retirement accounts. Many of us shared a highlight of voting for President Obama late in 2008. Imbolo Mbue shares the stories of two intertwined families through this time period in her debut, “Behold the Dreamers.”
Readers follow two very different families, connected by the father figures, through the early stages of the global financial crisis. Both families work through varied challenges and personal heartbreaks, though in vastly different ways. One father is an executive at Lehman Brothers, the other, his chauffeur.
Jende and Neni Jonga’s family is the more endearing of the two. The Jonga’s have recently immigrated from Limbe, Cameroon. (MAP LINK) Leaving behind social and economic angst and stagnation, the Jonga’s and their 6 year-old son move to Harlem seeking the American dream. A common challenge for the Jongas throughout the entire novel is the stress and struggle of getting a green card and legal immigration status. Neni works as a health aide, while attending school in preparation to become a pharmacist. Jendi drives for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers.
Edwards’s family could be easily written off as simply wealthy and pretentious, but Mbue makes sure to shed light on their familial struggles that are more complex. His wife, Cindy, compensates for her impoverished and traumatic childhood by working tirelessly to keep up appearances both physically and socially. Their 18 year-old son Vince hates the world in which his father works and moves to India to get away from the corrupting capitalism he sees in his home country and in his family. Mighty is a delightful, naive elementary-aged child who adores his part-time nanny, Neni, and doesn’t have a problem in the world.
As the country heads towards the financial crisis, tensions within both families begin to manifest. The reader is given a rare and very honest look at both families as their worlds fall apart. Mbue balances a very honest depiction of the characters and their choices, while never placating compassion. I highly recommend this spellbinding novel, filled with such strong characterization and realistic dialogue that makes readers feel they are in the moment.
Join the Club
The EFSJ Book Club meets monthly to discuss readings over wine, seltzer and cheese. All are welcome to join us. We discuss the varied elements of our readings, and then make action plans to impact our community based on our learning. Information will be available by emailing me, or by following our instagram at ef_socialjustice.