Cover image for Lost children archive / Valeria Luiselli.
Lost children archive / Valeria Luiselli.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Physical Description:
383 pages : illustrations (some color), photographs ; 24 cm.
General Note:
"This is a Borzoi book."
"A novel about a family of four, on the cusp of fracture, who take a trip across America--a story told through varying points of view, and including archival documents and photographs"-- Provided by publisher.

"From the two-time NBCC Finalist, a fiercely imaginative novel about a family's summer road trip across America--a journey that, with breathtaking imagery, spare lyricism, and profound humanity, probes the nature of justice and equality in America today. A mother and father set out with their kids from New York to Arizona. In their used Volvo--and with their ten-year-old son trying out his new Polaroid camera--the family is heading for the Apacheria: the region the Apaches once called home, and where the ghosts of Geronimo and Cochise might still linger. The father, a sound documentarist, hopes to gather an "inventory of echoes" from this historic, mythic place. The mother, a radio journalist, becomes consumed by the news she hears on the car radio, about the thousands of children trying to reach America but getting stranded at the southern border, held in detention centers, or being sent back to their homelands, to an unknown fate. But as the family drives farther west--through Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texas--we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, unforgettable adventure--both in the harsh desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations. Told through the voices of the mother and her son, as well as through a stunning tapestry of collected texts and images--including prior stories of migration and displacement--Lost Children Archive is a story of how we document our experiences, and how we remember the things that matter to us the most. Blending the personal and the political with astonishing empathy, it is a powerful, wholly original work of fiction: exquisite, provocative, and deeply moving"-- Provided by publisher.


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LUI Book Adult General Collection

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"The novel truly becomes novel again in Luiselli's hands--electric, elastic, alluring, new." --Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

"Impossibly smart, full of beauty, heart and insight . . . Everyone should read this book." --Tommy Orange

Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction

From the two-time NBCC Finalist, an emotionally resonant, fiercely imaginative new novel about a family whose road trip across America collides with an immigration crisis at the southwestern border--an indelible journey told with breathtaking imagery, spare lyricism, and profound humanity.

A mother and father set out with their two children, a boy and a girl, driving from New York to Arizona in the heat of summer. Their destination: Apacheria, the place the Apaches once called home.

Why Apaches? asks the ten-year-old son. Because they were the last of something, answers his father.

In their car, they play games and sing along to music. But on the radio, there is news about an "immigration crisis": thousands of kids trying to cross the southwestern border into the United States, but getting detained--or lost in the desert along the way.

As the family drives--through Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texas--we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can almost feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, harrowing adventure--both in the desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.

Told through several compelling voices, blending texts, sounds, and images, Lost Children Archive is an astonishing feat of literary virtuosity. It is a richly engaging story of how we document our experiences, and how we remember the things that matter to us the most. With urgency and empathy, it takes us deep into the lives of one remarkable family as it probes the nature of justice and equality today.

Author Notes

Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa and India. An acclaimed writer of both fiction and nonfiction, she is the author of the essay collection Sidewalks; the novels Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth ; and, most recently, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions . She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award, and has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize. She has been a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" honoree and the recipient of a Bearing Witness Fellowship from the Art for Justice Fund. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, and McSweeney's, among other publications, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. She lives in New York City.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Luiselli's powerful, eloquent novel begins with a family embarking on a road trip and culminates in an indictment of America's immigration system. An unnamed husband and wife drive, with their children in the backseat, from New York City to Arizona, he seeking to record remnants of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache, she hoping to locate two Mexican girls last seen awaiting deportation at a detention center. The husband recounts for the 10-year-old son and five-year-old daughter stories about a legendary band of Apache children. The wife explains how immigrant children become separated from parents, losing their way and sometimes their lives. Husband, wife, son, and daughter nickname themselves Cochise, Lucky Arrow, Swift Feather, and Memphis, respectively. When Swift Feather and Memphis go off alone, they become lost, then separated, then intermingled with the Apache and immigrant children, both imagined and all too real. As their parents frantically search, Memphis trades Swift Feather's map, compass, flashlight, binoculars, and Swiss Army knife for a bow and arrow, leaving them with only their father's stories about the area to guide them. Juxtaposing rich poetic prose with direct storytelling and brutal reality and alternating narratives with photos, documents, poems, maps, and music, Luiselli explores what holds a family and society together and what pulls them apart. Echoing themes from previous works (such as Tell Me How It Ends), Luiselli demonstrates how callousness toward other cultures erodes our own. Her superb novel makes a devastating case for compassion by documenting the tragic shortcomings of the immigration process. 31 photos. 75,000-copy announced first printing. (Feb.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

LAST SUMmer, when the American government separated thousands of migrant children from their parents - detaining them far apart and sometimes losing track of children - the outcry was visceral, and full-throated enough to provoke a stampede of storytelling by activists and journalists. There seemed to be an imperative, both professional and moral, to pay particular attention to the experiences of the children. There was a duty to humanize them, to counter political language such as "illegal alien." But what such stories really hope to do is humanize their readers, listeners, spectators: the desensitized consumers of news. The reporting aims to make us see beyond legal, national or partisan labels into the hearts of migrants, to awaken us to empathy. Which of us who has loved a child wouldn't be moved by the evocative details of innocence snagged on the jagged fences of adult circumstance? This newspaper, for one, told of the mooing that resonated at bedtime through a converted Walmart superstore in Texas where 1,500 boys, despite being detained, could still make animal noises in a conspiracy of silliness and take refuge in pretending together. The novel "Lost Children Archive" unfolds against this very backdrop of crisis: of children crossing borders, facing death, being detained, being deported unaccompanied by their guardians. The novel follows a couple and their two children (all unnamed) from previous marriages, a 5year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy, on a road trip from New York City to the Mexican border. There the wife, the novel's narrator, intends to work on a journalistic piece about the "removals" of child migrants by the United States Border Patrol, and the husband on a sound project about the 19th-century "removals" of Apaches, the last Native Americans to surrender to American soldiers. Valeria Luiselli charts the couple's intellectual concerns and political commitments (and her own) in ruminative, layered prose that deliberately digresses more than it progresses, with a riffing, essayistic logic, subtitles that become refrains, and minimal plot. The couple's marriage is on the brink of collapse, and for the first half of the novel their physical journey is mirrored by an emotional circling, back to and around the memories of when they first found each other and moved in together as a family. As they drive southwest, they listen to radio reports about migrant children in trouble, and the wife learns that the daughters of a woman she knew through her daughter's school, and once helped as a volunteer interpreter, have somehow gone missing during deportation. Meanwhile, the wife is reading aloud (sometimes to her children, sometimes into her recorder) a translation of an Italian novel, "Elegies for Lost Children," about unaccompanied children riding atop trains to an unnamed country. Luiselli alludes to and cannibalizes many real books, some canonical, some obscure, in "Lost Children Archive," but this Italian novel is a work of her own making. Its true author is not the fictional Ella Camposanto but Luiselli herself. She interweaves this invented book with her own so that the two texts and the two journeys - one by car, meandering and almost desultory; the other speeding forward with the almost locomotive propulsion of suspenseful fiction - seem on their way to a collision. A diplomat's daughter born in Mexico and raised across borders and languages, Luiselli has herself been preoccupied, since her own 2014 family journey to the border, with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children who each year climb aboard a northbound freight train called La Bestia, or "the beast," seeking asylum. Her previous book, a nonfiction work called "Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Lorty Questions," arose from her interviews with migrant children as a volunteer court interpreter in New York City. In "Lost Children Archive," her fifth book (her first novel to be written in English), she's as preoccupied with her doubts over whether and how to tell their stories as she is with telling them as urgently as their tragic situation demands. Of course, a novel's purpose and potential are different from those of a newspaper article or a radio spot. Books that immerse us in the internal and external deserts unaccompanied child migrants must cross - books that mirror the characters, trajectory and terrain of Luiselli's imaginary text-within-a-text - already exist. Among several works of narrative nonfiction about their plight is the journalist Sonia Nazario's "Enrique's Journey," which shadows a Honduran boy as he rides the rails to reunite with his mother in the United States. There's also poetry from a first-person perspective: "Unaccompanied," by Javier Zamora, who fled El Salvador atop trains at the age of 9. Other works in English, all factual, have kicked open the doors of this particular experience. WHAT PERHAPS SETS A NOVEL APART from these other genres is the childlike pleasure it can take in pure play, in the imaginative pact of treating the artifice of the story as lived reality. And there is joy in make-believe in "Lost Children Archive," which gains much of its wry charisma from the playacting of its precocious child characters - both those riding atop trains and those riding in cars. At one point in "Elegies," thumps and shouts from the illicit rooftop cargo of children ricochet down the length of a train, as infectious as the mooing in that former Walmart. But rather than inviting her readers to suspend disbelief, as children do, Luiselli instead encourages us to see the artifice as artifice, even to be wary of it. Can she, as an adult and a relatively privileged one, possibly capture the reality of these children, in fiction or nonfiction? The novel's narrator, brooding over her proposed oral histories of asylumseeking children, doubts that she can or should ever get as close to her sources as her husband gets to buzzing insects with his mic. She questions the ethics of exploiting the children's lives as "material for media consumption": "Why? What for?" she asks. "So that others can listen to them and feel - pity? Feel - rage? And then do what? No one decides to not go to work and start a hunger strike after listening to the radio in the morning." But what might one do after reading a novel that stirs pity and rage? Acutely sensitive to these misgivings, Luiselli has delivered a madly allusive, self-reflexive, experimental novel, one that is as much about storytellers and storytelling as it is about lost children. Play she in fact can, and does: with structure, cleverly, inventively. Her previous work won accolades for its risk-taking with form. "Tell Me How It Ends" was structured as responses to the questionnaire on the immigration court's intake form. "Lost Children Archive" takes the highly complex shape of an archive. It contains three recognizable narratives: (1) the wife's eddying first-person musings subdivided into recurring headings such as "Allegory," "Reverberations," "Climax" and "Histories"; (2) transcriptions of recordings the boy has made for his little sister to remember the desert adventure that unfolds when, noting the attention their mother pays to lost children, they purposely get lost themselves; and (3) the third-person "Elegies" threaded throughout as either the wife or the boy reads them into the recorder. Slipped in among these accounts are the boy's Polaroids of people and places along their journey; a humanitarian group's map pinpointing migrant deaths in the desert; mortality reports identifying migrant remains; a photograph of a clunky cellphone, toothpaste and a pen recovered in Pima County, Ariz.; a map the boy has drawn to show his parents their runaway path; an image of Apache prisoners being transported east by train in 1886; a 1910 poster seeking guardians out west for homeless children in New York City; a photograph of these orphans sent west by rail and catalogs of the seven storage boxes the family carries on their trip. The contents include a bibliography for theorizing about archives, maps of the Southwest and a novella entitled "The Children's Crusade" about a legendary 13th-century child migration from Europe to the Holy Land, a real book cited as the inspiration for "Elegies for Lost Children." Add to all this the husband's stories of a band of Apache children called the Eagle Warriors and there are four layers of historical lost children that Luiselli connects to the contemporary ones in her novel. Given her interest in echoes of past injustice, her archival structure makes sense. Anything, any enclosure for the material remnants of the lives of others, can be an archive. Even the floor of the Sonoran Desert, where migrants dead and alive have left pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Red Bull cans and bottles of water painted black to escape notice at night. While stories soothe with their imposed semblance of order, archives exhaust with the often incomprehensible chaos of what's been left behind. It's no coincidence that the subheadings "Chaos" and "Order" recur in the book. Or that a novel so concerned with the arbitrary, impossible nature of storytelling should embrace archives, with their shapeless, indeterminate character, as its scaffolding. This highly conceptual, cerebral approach is rich but occasionally frustrating as it carries nested within it the potential to stir pity and rage. Luiselli holds a doctorate in comparative literature from Columbia, and "Lost Children Archive" is a virtuosic, erudite performance, referring back to and repurposing the words and strategies of modernist writers like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, metafictional tricksters like Vladimir Nabokov and masters of the difficult, experimental and hyperallusive like James Joyce. Luiselli's significant set of references also includes the David Bowie song "Space Oddity," Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and "Lord of the Flies," William Golding's dystopian classic about children running wild in the absence of adults. Her novel bears rereading, to reveal pleasing ironies (the boy loses the "little red book about lost children" on a train) and stylistic sleights of hand (that little red book begins in much the same way as "Lost Children" itself). In Luiselli's most thrilling section, the children from the fake book meet those from the actual book in a derelict train car in the desert, their voices merging as they walk toward one another, the stream of consciousness of one band collapsing into that of the other. The section "Echo Canyon" consists of one mounting, rhythmic, delirious and possibly hallucinatory feat of a sentence spanning 20 pages. It is reminiscent of Molly Bloom's epic soliloquy in Joyce's "Ulysses." The final irony might be that with "Lost Children Archive," Luiselli has indeed written the sort of novel about unaccompanied children that she seems to resist: the bookwithin-the-book she ascribes to Camposanto. Its metaphors are wrought with devastating precision. In a fable-like scene set in a train yard where swindlers, vendors and entertainers mill, to help or exploit the migrants, Luiselli/Camposanto describes one fortuneteller as "a scrotumfaced woman, neck speckled with warts and stray hair, and eyes like a welcome mat on which too many shoes had been wiped." The elegies, foreshadowing the loss of a boy on a train, are riveting. They achieve a lyrical immediacy that makes us feel for those children atop the train. The brilliance of the writing stirs rage and pity. It humanizes us. Play Luiselli in fact can, and does: with structure, cleverly, inventively. GAIUTRA Bahadur has spent time in archives, for her book "Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture," and on the migrant trail in Arizona's Sonoran Desert while reporting for The Nation in 2010.

Library Journal Review

A woman with a daughter and a man with a son meet in New York while recording a sound archive of the city; eventually, they marry and become a family. After the project ends, the entire family drives across the country. The father has vague plans to document sounds in the area where the Apaches surrendered; the woman (of Mexican descent, like the author) wishes to research migrant children's experiences crossing the border. Meanwhile, it's evident that the marriage is falling apart. The first half of the story is told in the mother's voice, but this approach is abruptly abandoned for the ten-year-old son's perspective. Interspersed throughout are gripping excerpts from an imagined novel called Elegies of Lost Children, a grim, mythlike account of migrant children riding a freight train to an unnamed border. The novel also includes lists of books and articles, the contents of the family's archive in the trunk of the car, and photographs that document the family's travels, further blurring the border between fact and fiction. VERDICT The shifting sensibility from observer to child to child migrant gradually pulls readers inside the migrants' nightmare journey to create a story that, if fragmented, feels both timely and intelligent. [See Prepub Alert, 8/27/18.]-Reba Leiding, emerita, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Part I: Family Soundscape   Relocations "An archive presupposes an archivist, a hand that collects and classifies." --Arlette Farge "To leave is to die a little. To arrive is never to arrive." --Migrant prayer   Departure Mouths open to the sun, they sleep. Boy and girl, foreheads pearled with sweat, cheeks red and streaked white with dry spit. They occupy the entire space in the back of the car, spread out, limbs offering, heavy and placid. From the copilot seat, I glance back to check on them every so often, then turn around to study the map again. We advance in the slow lava of traffic toward the city limits, across the GW Bridge, and merge onto the interstate. An airplane passes above us and leaves a straight long scar on the palate of the cloudless sky. Behind the wheel, my husband adjusts his hat, dries his forehead with the back of his hand. Family Lexicon I don't know what my husband and I will say to each of our children one day. I'm not sure which parts of our story we might each choose to pluck and edit out for them, and which ones we'd shuffle around and insert back in to produce a final version--even though plucking, shuffling, and editing sounds is probably the best summary of what my husband and I do for a living. But the children will ask, because ask is what children do. And we'll need to tell them a beginning, a middle, and an end. We'll need to give them an answer, tell them a proper story. The boy turned ten yesterday, just one day before we left New York. We got him good presents. He had specifically said: No toys. The girl is five, and for some weeks has been asking, insistently: When do I turn six? No matter our answer, she'll find it unsatisfactory. So we usually say something ambiguous, like: Soon. In a few months. Before you know it. The girl is my daughter and the boy is my husband's son. I'm a biological mother to one, a stepmother to the other, and a de facto mother in general to both of them. My husband is a father and a stepfather, to each one respectively, but also just a father. The girl and boy are therefore: step-sister, son, stepdaughter, daughter, step-brother, sister, stepson, brother. And because hyphenations and petty nuances complicate the sentences of everyday grammar--the us, the them, the our, the your--as soon as we started living together, when the boy was almost six and the girl still a toddler, we adopted the much simpler possessive adjective our to refer to them two. They became: our children. And sometimes: the boy, the girl. Quickly, the two of them learned the rules of our private grammar, and adopted the generic nouns Mama and Papa, or sometimes simply Ma and Pa. And until now at least, our family lexicon defined the scope and limits of our shared world.   Family Plot My husband and I met four years ago, recording a soundscape of New York City. We were part of a large team of people working for the Center for Oral History at Columbia University. The soundscape was meant to sample and collect all the keynotes and the soundmarks that were emblematic of the city: subway cars screeching to a halt, music in the long underground hallways of Forty-Second Street, ministers preaching in Harlem, bells, rumors and murmurs inside the Wall Street stock exchange. But it also attempted to survey and classify all the other sounds that the city produced and that usually went by, as noise, unnoticed: cash registers opening and closing in delis, a script being rehearsed in an empty Broadway theater, underwater currents in the Hudson, Canada geese flocking and shitting over Van Cortlandt Park, swings swinging in Astoria playgrounds, elderly Korean women filing wealthy fingernails on the Upper West Side, a fire breaking through an old tenement building in the Bronx, a passerby yelling a stream of motherfuckers at another. There were journalists, sound artists, geographers, urbanists, writers, historians, acoustemologists, anthropologists, musicians, and even bathymetrists, with those complicated devices called multibeam echo sounders, which were plunged into the waterspaces surrounding the city, measuring the depth and contours of the riverbeds, and who knows what else. Everyone, in couples or small groups, surveyed and sampled wavelengths around the city, like we were documenting the last sounds of an enormous beast. The two of us were paired up and given the task of recording all the languages spoken in the city, over a period of four calendar years. The description of our duties specified: "surveying the most linguistically diverse metropolis on the planet, and mapping the entirety of languages that its adults and children speak." We were good at it, it turned out; maybe even really good. We made a perfect team of two. Then, after working together for just a few months, we fell in love--completely, irrationally, predictably, and headfirst, like a rock might fall in love with a bird, not knowing who was the rock was and who the bird--and when summer arrived, we decided to move in together. The girl remembers nothing about that period, of course. The boy says he remembers that I was always wearing an old blue cardigan that had lost a couple of buttons and came down to my knees, and that sometimes, when we rode the subway or buses--always with freezing air pouring out--I'd take it off and use it as a blanket to cover him and the girl, and that it smelled of tobacco and was itchy. Moving in together had been a rash decision--messy, confusing, urgent, and as beautiful and real as life feels when you're not thinking about its consequences. We became a tribe. Then came the consequences. We met each other's relatives, got married, started filing joint taxes, became a family.   Inventory In the front seats: he and I. In the glove compartment: proof of insurance, registration, owner's manual, and road maps. In the backseat: the two children, their backpacks, a tissue box, and a blue cooler with water bottles and perishable snacks. And in the trunk: a small duffle bag with my Sony PCM-D50 digital voice recorder, headphones, cables, and extra batteries; a large Porta-Brace organizer for his collapsible boom pole, mic, headphones, cables, zeppelin and dead-cat windshield, and the 702T Sound Device. Also: four small suitcases with our clothes, and seven bankers boxes (15" x 12" x 10"), double-thick bottoms and solid lids. Covalence Despite our efforts to keep it all firmly together, there has always been an anxiety around each one's place in the family. We're like those problematic molecules you learn about in chemistry classes, with covalent instead of ionic bonds--or maybe it's the other way around. The boy lost his biological mother at birth, though that topic is never spoken about. My husband delivered the fact to me, in one sentence, early on in our relationship, and I immediately understood that it was not a matter open to further questions. I don't like to be asked about the girl's biological father, either, so the two of us have always kept a respectful pact of silence about those elements of our and our children's pasts. In response to all that, perhaps, the children have always wanted to listen to stories about themselves within the context of us. They want to know everything about when the two of them became our children, and we all became a family. They're like anthropologists studying cosmogonic narratives, but with a touch more narcissism. The girl asks to hear the same stories over and over again. The boy asks about moments of their childhood together, as if they had happened decades or even centuries ago. So we tell them. We tell them all the stories we're able to remember. Always, if we miss a part, confuse a detail, or if they notice any minimal variation to the version they remember, they interrupt, correct us, and demand that the story be told once more, properly this time. So we rewind the tape in our minds and play it again from the beginning. Excerpted from Lost Children Archive: A Novel by Valeria Luiselli All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.