In classrooms across the country, children and teens who are newcomers to the U.S. struggle to assimilate. In the process, the richness of their own experience is often devalued; their stories, lost. Edwidge Danticat’s first novel for young adults represents the initial entry in an admirable new series from Scholastic Books called First Person Fiction, in which notable authors from various backgrounds are asked to combine the themes of coming-of-age and coming to America. A writer of considerable complexity and style, Danticat here adapts the straightforward, occasionally ingenuous voice of young diarist Celiane Esperance in the fall of 2000 as she waits with her mother and 19-year-old brother, Moy, in a remote village in Haiti for the opportunity to join her father in New York City. They have not seen him for five years: He had to leave to seek work when the family farm could no longer support them.
Their journey evolves in stages, each with its own challenges hence the title, drawn from the Haitian proverb, Behind the mountains are more mountains. Conditions in their village may be subsistence-level (with no power or telephone, their only way to communicate with Celiane’s father is via a battery-powered cassette machine), but she manages to glean delight from unlikely sources, for instance, from the red glow of discarded cooking cinders ( like finding stars on the ground ). The occasional visit with her aunt in town involves pleasures and stresses in equal measure; the latter prevail after the bus in which they’re traveling is hit by an election-protest pipe bomb. The disaster, as it turns out, has an up side, as it helps to speed their emigration application, and soon Celine must confront new fears: What is the plane falls out of the sky? . . . What if we hate New York? The joy of reunion is indeed quickly supplanted by family tensions, and Celiane is flummoxed by such seemingly easy tasks as figuring out how to catch a bus home from school. We know she will cope, and eventually prosper. However, anyone who has ever been in her shoes and that’s everyone who has ever left home will empathize, not just with Celiane but with brave voyagers everywhere.