Although Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Hector Tobar wrote The Barbarian Nurseries almost five years ago, the theme of racial conflict is just as relevant today. As he explores boundaries, Tobar combines drama with comedy, and introduces characters with more depth than the stereotype so often assigned to them.
The story has more to offer than the bones of the plot. Araceli is the live-in Mexican maid for pale-skinned, half-Mexican Scott Torres; his wife, Maureen; and their three children, Brandon, Keenan and Samantha – a family in a gated community in Orange County, California, living beyond their means. After a quarrel over money, Scott and Maureen each leave to lick their wounds – not realizing the other has gone. Days go by and Araceli finds herself alone with the two young boys. With an old photograph in hand, she decides to find their grandfather as a possible caregiver for the abandoned boys. The parents return to find the boys and the maid missing, and fear the worst. The wild ride that ensues is based on a misunderstanding.
In her review for the New York Times, Rebecca Donner notes:
“Much of the potency of “The Barbarian Nurseries” comes from our knowledge, as privileged readers, of Araceli’s thoughts and feelings, disclosures that bring forth some of its freshest imagery. We learn of her girlhood home in Mexico City, where she awoke to the sound of her mother sweeping the patio…that she attended art school at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, but economic hardship prevented her from continuing her studies…
Social and racial conflict assume a larger dimension when Araceli is accused of a crime, setting into motion a plot that brings about the collision of people from radically different worlds. The charge is child endangerment, child abuse or kidnapping, depending on whose opinion is solicited in Child Protective Services, law enforcement or the network news, and media frenzy feeds an institutional overreaction that culminates in an Amber Alert.”
The book is the monthly pick for a local book club, and certainly offers a wealth of issues for discussion, but I hope someone in the group speaks Spanish and can translate the many asides Tobar includes. Their context reveals the meaning, but somehow I think I may have missed a few of the juicier innuendos.