Part of me has real empathy with this novel, but in an extremely different way than the author may have intended. In fact, I’m not sure how fair it is that I claim empathy with this novel, but nonetheless, part of me truly understands what it is about, even if I can’t say I lived nearly as troubled or traumatic a life as the protagonist of The House on Mango Street. Every person who leaves the place they grew up has memories and shaping experiences that they will take with them everywhere for the rest of their life. Whether those experiences are haunting and distressing or joyful and cathartic, they are completely inescapable. In this way, where you’re from is something you can’t leave behind, even if you want to. For me, it is the fact that where I come from is deeply misguided in its views on racism and every other social issue known to humanity. Even those who have stayed there and managed to have an accepting mindset and approach to life can still find themselves struggling with normalizing thoughts and beliefs that have no business being anywhere near the norm. Yet, I’ve truly had a privileged life if this is my main avenue of empathy with Ciscernos’ novel.
The House on Mango Street is a novel that is made up of a series of vignettes about Esperanza, a thirteen year-old girl living in Chicago who is at least partially an autobiographical stand-in for Ciscernos. As the novel opens, Esperanza and her family have dreams of finally having a home of their own that they can settle in. For her entire life she has been moving from place to place, the only steady aspect of her life being her family, a key theme of the novel. Hope finds its way into Esperanza’s dreams of what it is like to own a home and have a place to herself when she learns they are moving into their own home on Mango Street. When the home is not what she envisioned it to be, she begins to take a new stance toward reality and the hand she has been dealt in life. The House on Mango Street, more than anything else, is about Esperanza’s constant battles with her ideals juxtaposed to what happens to her to stop her from attaining them.
The book’s structure is what sets it apart, the vignettes allowing Ciscernos to cover a broad range of both topics and time without feeling uneven or jumpy. Much like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, The House on Mango Street is likely a novel that could be read one story a day over a few months without the book ever managing to lose any of its beauty or meaning. Mango Street reads like memories, both frightful and wonderful. Just as reality brings to your head the best and worst aspects of your life seemingly randomly, Mango Street does the same, albeit with a big more structure to provide the semblance of a narrative. These vignettes all function towards a drive in Esperanza that continually makes her ask one thing: where do I belong? For nearly all of the story, the one place she is sure she does not belong is Mango Street. From the alleys, to the school, to the dilapidated buildings, she feels herself being crushed by it. It is her friends and family that, for the most part, keep her happy.
It is friends and family, as well, that bring meaning and acceptance to her life on Mango Street. And this is what the book moves toward; namely that to truly escape Mango Street, to truly accept ourselves, we must accept where we came from. Which is not to say that we must be okay with everything bad about it. It is instead to say that it did manage to produce us and others we love. And it is those others that allow us to coexist with the place and return to it.
Recommended to: This is an easy novel to tell everyone to read. While I didn’t find it life changing, it is well-written and worthwhile.
Avoid as if it is forgetting someone’s birthday: N/A. This has no business on anyone’s avoid list.