After an argument over money ends badly, Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson leave their home in the Laguna Rancho Estates separately. Neither of them informs their housekeeper, Araceli Ramírez, who finds herself unwillingly in charge of their two sons. Three days and several miscommunications later, Araceli faces deportation because she attempted to bring the children to their grandfather in L.A.
Héctor Tobar’s fiction debut The Barbarian Nurseries (Hodder & Stroughton, 2011) is both a novel and a social study of pesent-day Southern California. His cast include illegal Mexican houseworkers, old and new Mexican-Americans, angry white protesters, politicians, social workers, tech upstarts, and counter-cultural leaders. But rather than drawing from simplistic patterns, Tobar portrays them as fully fledged individuals. He allows his characters to unfold slowly, giving them time to show all their facets – especially the ugly ones.
Our world knowledge shapes our world
This is the case for the two main characters Araceli and Maureen: Araceli was born and raised in Mexico City, where she studied fine arts until she ran out of money. Maureen grew up in the Midwest and, after a short period of working in IT, defines herself mostly by being a mother. The two of them know very little about each other, despite the fact that Araceli is a live-in housekeeper. This, however, doesn’t keep them from having sharp opinions: Araceli thinks of her employers and their friends as shabbily dressed show-offs, while Maureen changes her mind from regarding Araceli as her loyal household ally to a lurking force of evil she unwittingly harbored.
Lack of communication combined with preconceptions and prejudices is behind many of the events in The Barbarian Nurseries: In L.A., the older son and avid reader, Brandon, meets a boy who is being treated strictly by the family he lives with. As his world knowledge is based on fantasy books, he concludes the kid must be a slave. Similarly, a police officer with very limited knowledge of art reads the odd sculpture of a phoenix Araceli made from kitchen scraps as evidence for her sick mind, which leads him to order an amber alert in the case of the two missing children. While the first example might be read as humorous, the second one shows that these faulty judgements persists into adulthood and can have serious consequences.
There are no easy solutions
A tentative way out of this problem is presented when Tobar lets his characters see themselves from the outside: Watching the security camera footage, Araceli realizes that her behavior towards the two kids can easily be regarded as careless and alienating. Seeing herself on TV, Maureen experiences pangs of remorse about her lies. Questioning themselves might open up a path to empathy, but the novel’s ending isn’t optimistic about the results: The Torres-Thompsons vow to change, evidenced by their decision to move to a smaller house. While this eliminates the need for a housekeeper, Maureen’s attitude towards luxury remains the same. And although there is a silver lining for Araceli, it stays unclear whether the experience has changed her at all.
The Barbarian Nurseries uses an individual story to illustrate a complex problem without offering easy solutions. Although the story drags on a little too long near the end, Tobar’s minute observation and attention to detail introduce calm and consideration into a highly politicized debate. The novel creates empathy – even with the characters who least deserve it.