These 'Far Away Brothers' Remake Themselves In AmericaLauren Markham's careful, empathetic new book follows twin brothers from El Salvador, who flee gang violence to make a new life for themselves in a country that's increasingly harsh to immigrants.
Lily Meyer works at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.
I'm a book reviewer. Most of the time, it's not my job to write about politics. But it would be impossible to write about Lauren Markham's The Far Away Brothers without writing about our political moment — or, if not impossible, both cowardly and pointless, since the project of The Far Away Brothers is a political one.
Markham began writing it while a school administrator in Oakland, where she worked with dozens of students who had arrived in the United States from Central America's Northern Triangle as unaccompanied, undocumented minors. Her students told her the stories of how and why they came: in a bag that someone threw over the border wall, on the top of a train, on a bus pretending to be a coyote's son, all of them hoping for a better life, which "for many, means a life where they are not afraid of being killed." Markham wrote The Far Away Brothers to pass those stories on.
Her main subjects are a pair of Salvadoran twins who she met while she worked at Oakland International High School. She calls them Ernesto and Raúl Flores, and she begins their story in 2013, when their gang-affiliated uncle Agustín takes a dislike to Ernesto that turns into MS-13 threats against his life. Before long, Ernesto understands that he has to flee El Salvador, as does his identical twin. So they find coyotes and go to join their brother Wilber, who has been living without documents in the Bay Area for years. Three years later, when Markham ends the book, Ernesto and Raúl are still living in California, and Donald Trump has just been elected president.
I say ends the book rather than ends the story because there are no conclusions in The Far Away Brothers. When the book stops, Ernesto has just had a child; Raúl is struggling to complete high school. Both have green cards. Both hope they will be able to find a true and enduring place in this country whose voting populace, by the measure that matters, has just declared them unwelcome. It's hard to predict, on a personal or a political level, whether that hope will come true.
As I read The Far Away Brothers, I thought frequently of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family, an exceptionally detailed portrait of two women struggling to create families and keep them together in a low-income section of the Bronx. LeBlanc spent 11 years with Jessica, Coco, and their families. She writes movingly about her relationships with the two women, and about their ongoing generosity in choosing to be her subjects. It's a gesture of extreme trust. LeBlanc knows this and is grateful, and the same clearly goes for Markham. When she first knew Ernesto and Raúl, they "encouraged [her] to write a book about 'kids like us.'" After they became legal adults, she asked if she could write not about kids like them, but about them. They agreed, but she struggled with the ethics of the project, finally deciding, "[If] I could trust myself to tell their story respectfully and carefully, and if the twins accepted and encouraged the idea, it was appropriate for me to write this book."
The Far Away Brothers is respectful and careful. It is elegantly structured and constantly empathetic. It's clear that Markham did her work well, and that the Flores brothers — and, in fact, the entire Flores family — were invested in the process. But it's clear, too, that she was not woven into the fabric of Ernesto and Raúl's lives. The book is more known than felt. It's too filled with statistics; the numbers start to blend. It lacks the depth and emotional clarity that Random Family achieves so well. I blame this on Donald Trump.
I'm not kidding. I think the flaws in The Far Away Brothers are Trump's fault, not Markham's. I understand that the Flores brothers and thousands of unaccompanied minors like them arrived in the country before Trump was elected, before anybody could have imagined that he would be. I understand that the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency were also a terrifying time for undocumented migrants. And yet, as Markham writes, "the election of Donald Trump [marks] an era of unprecedented fear among immigrants and refugees past and present." If she rushed her book out, it's no wonder. We need to read it now. In fact, clearly we needed to read it a long time ago.
So yes, I wish Markham had spent 11 years following Ernesto and Raúl Flores. I wish she could have watched Ernesto raise his daughter Isabella, the first American citizen in a family that had sent three children north. I wish she could have found out whether Wilber was able to get a green card, or whether the oldest Flores sister, Maricela, ever emigrated from El Salvador as she hoped to.
But in this year of America First, no writer has time to spare. Those of us who were born in this country need as many reminders as possible that some Americans are made, not born. Some Americans make themselves. The Flores brothers did, through danger and debt and depression. Markham captures their absolute bravery well, and she respects it absolutely. For that reason alone, you should read The Far Away Brothers. We all should.