We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (2015)

In a follow up to her lovely, heartbreaking, debut novel The Language of Flowers, Diffenbaugh writes a story about a first-generation immigrant family trying to move from the fringes of society to its center.

The story opens with the flawed-almost-to-the-point-of-helplessness Letty, driving drunk and chasing down her parents who have left their poverty-stricken neighborhood outside of San Francisco to return to Mexico. Without much thought to the fact that she has left alone her two young children, Letty emerges as a selfish woman more worried about what her parents’ decision means for her freedom than the risks her children may be facing. Letty’s parents have raised her two children for her, and without them in San Francisco, she cannot imagine having to care for the kids alone and does not want to try. Her parents refuse to return and demand that Letty do what she has avoided doing for fifteen years — be a mother to her son and daughter.

While it is easy to begin to care for her two children — brave, brilliant Alex and needy six-year-old Luna — it is also easy to immediately dislike Letty for her wild behavior and to be repulsed by her selfishness. Her lack of confidence in being able to raise her children alone seems like an excuse to have someone else take charge.

A mother myself, I find it outrageous to think that I would need or want anyone else to be in charge of caring for my sons. I easily began to judge Letty’s failures and mistakes very harshly. But as the book unfolds and Letty begins to put their lives back together, a more sympathetic woman emerges. We see a woman who left school to support her family in America and countless others in Mexico. We see how teenage motherhood and grueling work schedules left her exhausted enough to hand over childrearing to her parents and step out of her children’s lives. Most importantly, it becomes clear that this family lacked the resources to make another path. I was forced to admit that my own privileged upbringing — legal citizenship; upper-middle class, college-educated, married parents; health insurance; house security; safe neighborhood — would have made it much easier to make my way in the world had I become a single mother at 18. I had to stop judging her so harshly and begin to let her redeem herself.

Slowly, the small family reaches out to a group of friends and neighbors and begins to climb out of the harsh life on the outskirts and towards a better life in San Francisco. It feels tenuous, this new life, but full of hope. When the family is confronted with whether or not to help another neighbor who also wants a better life, they are forced into a precarious position. Will they risk their new lives to bring others along? Should their better future be something they guard selfishly or must they be open to helping in any way they can?

A good book, if not as poetic and touching as her first, and a good reminder of just how hard it can be to improve one’s life without a clear path to follow. We all could do with cultivating more sympathy for the struggles of those around us.

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