American Street by Ibi Zoboi is one of the most anticipated YA debuts of 2017. Everyone is talking about it. And with good reason.
Fabiola Toussant was born in America but has lived her entire life in Haiti. Her mother overextended her visa on a stay to America visiting her sister so Fabiola would be born a citizen. Now they are returning after 16 years. Except everything does not go as planned. Fabiola's mother is detained by INS and Fabiola is thrust on to a plane bound for Detroit alone. She is met by her cousins, twins her own age (Pri and Donna) and an older cousin (Chantal). With little time to process what has happened to her, Fabiola is instantly thrust into life in West Detroit: attending school with her cousins, meeting a cute boy, and coming in contact with the more dangerous side of Detroit's streets. When she is given an opportunity to get her mother in to the US that might mean betraying those closest to her, Fabiola must determine the cost of freedom and whether she's willing and able to pay it.
American Street is mostly told in Fabiola's first person narrative. There are occasional breaks between chapters where we get a small snapshot from each of the other characters' points of view. Each voice is unique and rounds out the story. Fabiola's voice is interesting. At the beginning of the novel it is possible to think her a little too trusting and naive. It's not long before she shows the steel core that exhaustion, confusion, and shattered hopes had softened a bit at the beginning. She is a child of Port-au-Prince. She understands danger, and she is actually quite good at manipulation. (I don't mean the latter in a negative way. She has survival skills.) Smart and adaptable, it doesn't take Fabiola long to find her confidence. She has run ins with misunderstandings, but she figures out how to slip into her new life remarkably well. As she adjusts, her relationships with those around her flourish and grow deeper. All of her cousins are different, but they form a unified team and Fabiola slowly but surely finds her place among them. She makes a wonderful friend. She meets a really awesome guy. (Kasim. Sigh.)
Despite mostly finding her feet rather quickly, Fabiola's story has a harsh side. A girl in Gross Pointe overdosed on bad drugs at a party. The police are determined to find the dealer responsible. They are certain that the person they are looking for is Donna's boyfriend Dray. All Fabiola has to do is help them catch him and her mother will be allowed into the country. Easy right? And no big deal if he's a bad guy. Except nothing in life is ever that simple. Community is complicated. The decisions we make have ripple effects that reach out and touch everyone around us. Fabiola's actions lead to consequences that are realistically harsh. Through this Zoboi examines how many systematic problems there are in immigration, urban policing, and people's ideas of life in the inner city. It is interesting to me that you can say the title, American Street, in two distinct ways-with the emphasis on Street or the emphasis on American (like you would naturally say it as a part of an address). And both are correct for the story this book tells. (Well done there.)
I don't really want to say much more about the story because I really think it is one that should be experienced, and I don't want to give away too much of what happens. It is one of those books that does brilliantly what it is trying to do. My only complaint is that I wanted to go a little deeper into Fabiola's head. There were times she went from A to B and I wanted a little more insight into her own personal thought process that got her there.
American Street is a powerful read with truth, heart, and a magnificent cast of fully realized characters. I highly recommend it. (My readers sensitive about strong language should know that this book has a lot of it. It needs to be there, but heads up.)
I read an ARC I received via the publisher, Balzer & Bray, at ALA Midwinter. American Street is available February 14th.