Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue c. 2016 (382 pages—Random House)

Set primarily in NYC during the subprime mortgage crisis, Mbue deftly shows the intersecting stories of two very different families: the Edwards and the Jongas. The Edwards are stoic Americans who want to maintain their lifestyle and keep up appearances. The Jongas are passionate Cameroonians who are seeking opportunity and upward mobility in the States. Questions concerning value(s)—both monetary and moral—are central to this novel. Both families and both countries are depicted in complicated and even contradictory ways, which is what makes the novel seem more realistic than didactic. Both Clark Edwards and Jende Jonga (whose biggest break comes when he becomes Edward’s chauffeur) are hardworking men who want to provide for their families, yet both men misread their wives’ (Neni and Cindy) emotional states on numerous occasions. In the end, after Clark loses his job and Jende faces deportation, it is the women who assert themselves and take the most dramatic action.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “These days she sang more than she had in her entire life. She sang when she ironed Jende’s shirts and when she walked home after dropping Liomi off at school. She sang as she applied lipstick to head out with Jende and Liomi to an African party: a naming ceremony in Brooklyn; a traditional wedding in the Bronx; a death celebration in Yonkers for someone who had died in Africa and whom practically none of the guests knew; a party for one reason or another that she’d been invited to by a friend from school or work, someone who knew the host and who assured her that it was okay to attend, since most African people didn’t care about fancy white-people ideas like attendance by invitation only. She sang walking to the subway and even sang in the Pathmark, caring nothing about the looks she got from people who couldn’t understand why someone could be so happy to go grocery shopping” (31).
  • “The silence in the apartment was like a celestial choir, the perfect background music to her study time—no one to disturb her, interrupt her, ask her to help do this or please come over right now. No sound but the faint noises of Harlem in the nighttime” (53).
  • “He looked out the window at the people walking on Amsterdam Avenue. None of them seemed concerned that the day might be one of his last in America. Some of them were laughing” (60).
  • “She dragged herself through the city, from work to school, to home, because she needed to carry on as if nothing had changed, as if their lives hadn’t just been opened up to unravelment. She couldn’t summon a smile, sing a song, or string together two thoughts without the word ‘deportation’ finding its way in there, and yet she propelled herself forward the morning after the news, dressed in pink scrubs and white sneakers for a long day of work, an overloaded backpack strapped on her shoulders so she could study at work while the client slept” (62).
  • “Most people were sticking to their own kind. Even in New York City, even in a place of many nations and cultures, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest” (95).
  • “The city that summer overflowed with the hot and thirsty: panting on subway platforms, battling the sun with wide hats and light clothes, rushing to scaffoldings for shade, dashing into department stores not for the sales advertised on windows but for the AC” (108).
  • “From the moment they shook hands in the portico until Cindy left for her dinner, the madam was enveloped in an air of superiority, standing tall and keeping her shoulders back as she walked in long strides, slowly enunciating every word when she spoke, as if she had the right to take as much of the listener’s time as she wished” (115).
  • “Both men were silent again as the car crawled through the midtown madness of tourist shoppers and harried commuters and street vendors and city buses and yellow cabs and black cars and children in strollers and messengers on bikes, and too much of everything” (205).
  • “After a shower and a dinner of Chinese leftovers, he had sat by the window in the common area, wrapped in his twin comforter and looking outside: at the weather so dull; at the people so colorlessly dressed; at the happy day slipping away so quickly and crushing him with longing” (240).
  • “She wanted to say that in spite of their circumstances, they should be happy because there was so much happiness in the world and because all of humanity was one. She wanted to say all this and more, but couldn’t, because she wasn’t sure if she believed it” (254).
  • “Gone were the moments of tender embraces in the kitchen, minutes of stolen passion in the bathroom while the children slept. They were now in two separate universes, each certain of his or her rightness and the other’s senselessness” (332).
  • “He would never become an American Wonder, one of those mbutukus who went to America and upon their return home spoke with laughable American accents, spraying ‘wannas’ and ‘gonnas’ all over sentences. They strutted around town wearing suits and cowboy boots and baseball caps, claiming to understand very little of Cameroonian culture because they were now too American” (355).
  • “In Limbe, Liomi and Timba would have many things they would not have had in America, but they would lose far too many things. / They would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers” (361).
  • “On the cab ride to the airport, she stared out the window in silence. It was all passing her by. New York City was passing her by. Bridges and billboards bearing smiling people were passing her by. Skyscrapers and brownstones were rushing by. Fast. Too fast. Forever” (379).

About Kelsey Maki

writer and English professor
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