Michel Stone's award winning novel, The Iguana Tree, is a harrowing yet movingly authentic story of a young family seeking refuge and a new life in America. Traveling from a small town in Mexico, Hector leaves his wife, Lilia, and newborn child in search for new opportunities across the border. When he meets the tree-farming gringos Elizabeth and Lucas, his risk seems to begin to pay off, and the prospect of a new life and safe crossing for his wife and child finally appears to be within reach. However, Lilia, desperate for her family to be reunited, makes a life-altering decision to cross without the help of her husband. As Hector and Lilia fight against border patrol, corrupt police, and uncouth smugglers, the magnitude of their journey and what is at stake becomes clear. The fight for the unity of their family, a better life, and safety begins for the young family as their resolve is tested and they are faced with the cruel realities of their decisions.
The story moves the reader between Puerto Isadore, Mexico to the low country of South Carolina on Edisto Island. The narratives between Lilia and Hector weave together to create a harrowing story of love and loss, which all comes together as they're reunited in Texas. Michel Stone crafts the characters in her novel with reality in mind. Their flaws as humans, above all else, evoke sympathy and understanding as well as a sense of connection in readers that many writers struggle to conjure. Stone writes a moving story, free of political or moral commentary or the taking of sides--she allows the reader to draw their own opinion, instead of telling anyone how they should feel. The characters themselves reflect the complications of immigrant's realities--that people are people, both good, bad, and in between. Stone writes about the complicated emotions border crossing invokes, and doesn't rely entirely on pity, but on the full range of human experience and emotion. Hector and Lilia are as strong in their decisions and actions as they are disadvantaged. Stone used the real life experiences of immigrants to base her story and location around, and her research shines through the novel. Her expert language describing the situations and locations Hector and Lilia find themselves in transports the readers into delivery trucks, hideaway houses, and the expansive tree farms of South Carolina. She writes about the culture beautifully, and does right by the people she writes about.
The story has several dark twists, and Stone writes about these situations with grace and humanity in mind. The darkness of the novel gets a bit overwhelming in sections, but is almost always lightened by a glimmer of positivity for the characters. The chapter where Lilia, Hector, and Miguel are pulled over by the police in Texas is undoubtedly one of the most anxiety inducing aspects of the story. Lilia and Hector's relationship develops tumultuously, and their arguments and feelings for each other get difficult to read. As the novel nears the end, the lives of Lilia and Hector begin to grow even worse, but Stone leaves room for hope, and anticipation for the sequel, Border Child. The novel ends in an uncertain place, both in their relationship and their living situation, which is my main qualm about the story. Since it ends on such an unexpected turn, and the lives of Lilia, Hector, and their baby hang in the hands of fate, the novel doesn't feel entirely complete. Reading the second novel is almost required in order to feel a sense of fulfillment.
Overall, The Iguana Tree is absolutely worth the read. Stone lets us peer through the eyes of those seeking better lives in America, and gives us a sense of the perils so many face, even today. While the novel is not overtly political, the sympathy for illegal border crossers spills from the page into hearts of those who may or may not have supported border crossing before. The true stories this novel was based on shapes the entire experience of reading the novel, and Michel Stone does an excellent job of not appropriating Mexican experiences or culture. Michel Stone covers all grounds and all possible opinions in her novel (whether directly or indirectly) in a gentle, graceful manner, which makes for a wonderful novel that doesn't tell the reader how to feel, but rather allows them to feel whatever human emotion her words evoke. The Iguana Tree provides a very good base for a much needed open discussion. about border control and the lives that it effects, and I encourage anyone who is concerned about the topic to give the novel a chance, and give yourself the chance to broaden your cultural views-- you may be surprised at how you feel by the time you've finished it.