For the first quarter of Oscar Cásares’ quiet, deeply human novel, the reader can be forgiven for believing that the story is a thriller of sorts—a cops-and-robbers narrative about smugglers and federal agents along America’s southern border. Instead, Where We Come From does something altogether different. What begins as a story about Nina, a Mexican-American woman who does a “favor” for her housekeeper by letting smugglers house their human cargo on her property, slowly transforms into a story about the meaning of family and home.
Eventually the smugglers are forced to disband, but one person remains: a small boy, stranded many miles away from his father to the north and his mother to the south. The child, Daniel, comes to befriend Nina’s godson, Orly. Even as Daniel is forced to hide away for fear of deportation, the children form a bond, and much of the novel centers on that bond.
There are many moments of quiet power in Cásares’ story. Among them are short asides in which the fates of minor characters are explained—the small fortunes and misfortunes of their lives—even as these characters pass inconspicuously through the narrative. The novel’s depiction of children’s daily lives is particularly well done, especially that of Orly, who is forced to navigate a world full of adults who either seem to trust him but not care for him, or care for him but not trust him.
Where We Come From is not the kinetic, suspenseful novel its opening pages will make many readers believe it is. This is a good thing. It moves instead at a slow, deliberate pace, much more concerned with what it means to make a life in a place where so many systems and institutions are designed to make you feel precarious and, in some way, permanently unrooted.