Our country is all turned around. Our president pardons the anti-immigrant sheriff notorious for brutalizing detained immigrants and locking up American citizens with Hispanic names. The nationwide clampdown on undocumented workers dashes hope and instills anxiety in millions of undocumented refugees, splits families and encourages violence by law enforcers.
Lauren Markham’s book “The Far Away Brothers” draws the camera away from the brutalizers and focuses it instead on young immigrants crossing to the United States.
Markham shows us the plight our heightened border vigilance has inflicted on Ernesto and Raúl Flores, relentlessly likable teen twin lads from El Salvador. The brothers have staggered northward, fleeing a murderous gang south of the border.
Markham follows their repeated misfortune and inspiring resilience, setback after setback. Their moving story, carefully reported, represents the ordeals of millions of undocumented immigrants in situations like those many of our parents and grandparents endured.
Markham brings us along on the brothers’ desperate flight northward. It’s heartbreaking and traumatic. The coyotes deliver on their promise of guidance and transportation past border guards, but they are not guardian angels. Brutality, near-starvation, thirst and sexual trauma are often part of the itinerary they offer. The rape of refugees on the move with nowhere to turn is so routine that travelers steel themselves for it in advance.
The brothers make it — almost. At the final outpost, a rather kindly officer snags them. Still, he finds that they’re just under 18, among the eldest in the swelling procession of minors who have made the trek unaccompanied by parents. And the twins have a relative already here. Their youth and this relation qualify them for prison instead of immediate ejection.
Ernesto and Raúl are locked up and must engage in a haphazard, cut-rate legal process. They have the rare luck to encounter an interested lawyer and eventually are allowed to attempt a marginal life in California. It’s conditional. A court hearing on their continued presence looms. Temptations for which they have no cultural preparation loom. They get lost finding the courthouse, trying to show up on time.
Meanwhile, the gang gouges enormous fees from the twins’ family in El Salvador, garnishes hard-won cash as the boys dutifully send it home to their parents and seizes the family’s farm when the cash runs dry.
The book is a passion of enforced suffering in which we come to respect the boys’ stamina and to hope that the capricious fates stay on their side. They aspire to mundane good citizenship and are no more a national menace than my grandparents were, who struggled free of sweatshops on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in an ordeal that was decades long, but far gentler than what these kids endure.
The boys somehow find their way to a rare and extraordinary school for immigrants in similar straits, in Oakland, Calif., where Markham — an experienced journalist with articles in the New Yorker, the Guardian, Guernica and the Virginia Quarterly Review — finds them and unspools their saga.
This is the sort of news that is the opposite of fake, distorted only in that it is the story of subjects who, against the odds, made it as far as they did — while so many don’t. The twins are hardly idealized. There are evident warts, and we see them. There are good officials, and we meet them. Markham is deeply committed to factuality and to narrative craft. She is a real writer, with a style that’s modest and humane.
Her background research is exhaustive, well-sourced in endnotes. She traveled to El Salvador and met the twins’ family, witnessed many events in the book firsthand and verified the rest.
Markham is our knowing, compassionate ally, our guide in sorting out, up close, how our new national immigration policy is playing out from a human perspective. This is an important book.
Mark Kramer is a writer, founding director of the Power of Narrative conference at Boston University and co-editor of “Telling True Stories.” He helped start the Fortellingens Kraft narrative journalism conference in Norway.
The Far Away Brothers
By: Lauren Markham.
Publisher: Crown, 298 pages, $27.