Book Review: The House on Mango Street

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I have disappeared under a tower of books that I am still considering for my English 1 class, at this, the eleventh hour. Class begins in a week and a half and I want to check on, oh, about thirty books. At least if I could read a book a day this week I might figure out what I have to … And then I could come up with a choose-your-own list over the next few months. I will not be emerging from this pile of books for some time, so strap on your seatbelts and get ready for a bombardment of high-school-reading reviews. (It’s not that I didn’t begin months ago, it’s just that what with the state of the world, country, and my resultant personal life, I’ve preferred to dissolve into a blob of Schitt’$ Creek– or Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives-watching goo rather than use my taxed brain or emotions on anything more substantial during nearly every moment of “free time.”)

I was really kind of hoping that The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros was going to be one of our reads for this year, but I wasn’t tremendously hopeful. I knew that the two high schoolers I had surveyed were not fans. I knew that it was bound to be very feminine (which would be okay once or twice, but with a class of all boys I was hoping to lean hard on what might interest them and I was also pulling for Persepolis and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). I also had the vague idea that it might involve some sexual something. Might. I don’t know where I got that idea though I imagine that the poetic writing lends itself to various interpretations. Or confusion. Also, imagine with me if you will a teeny-tiny, grass roots private school. That’s sorta like a home school co-op. The parents have very long arms into my classroom, so I have to pick my battles (especially since they are teaching four days out of five) and these are not California arts students.

Anyhow, I have decided—like with The Martian Chronicles—to use parts of the novel as opposed to assigning the whole. I am going to use these parts to talk about short story collections as novels and assign a half-dozen of the “short stories.” That’s also what we can talk about here: short story collections as novels. Like with Olive Kitteridge, some people say The House on Mango Street is a novel (or, really, a novella) and others are concerned about the lack of plot, character development, long chapters, long paragraphs, quotation marks and some other conventional punctuation, and generally normal story elements in Mango Street. It’s, well, it’s vague. Which makes sense because it’s almost poetry. These days, some of it might even pass as prose poetry or some other combo/experimental form of poetry. Seven of the first eight chapters are less than a page long. The last line of the second chapter is, “The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.” It’s a fragment, obviously, but it’s also pregnant with sensory detail, metaphor, emotion, and melody. The plug on the front of my copy is by Gwendoyln Brooks, a poet. On the back, the book is called “a series of vignettes.” Which maybe is one of the reasons it gets used in classrooms. It’s brief and it’s different.

There were some things that I found confusing about this book, mainly the passage of time. I wasn’t sure if we were going along chronologically or jumping around, and due to subject matter I thought that we had passed through years and years of Esperanza’s coming of age. Then at the end it was like, oh, and like a year later I was still hoping to leave. Weird. I think I was reading her as much too young at the beginning. Perhaps it was supposed to be innocence? I thought she was a child, but notes online tell me that she is “entering adolescence” the whole time. Well. I also found it difficult to keep track of the characters because we spend so little time with each one. You could argue that there is a raw intimacy with some of these characters or at least with Esperanza (the narrator), but without the usual kinds of details and plot I felt unmoored from the supporting friends and family.

Other than that, I really enjoyed the book even if it did have a hazy, soporific effect on me. (I didn’t literally fall asleep, but felt mentally and emotionally subdued under it’s cottony style.) The language is beautiful and the style is unique. The subject matter is interesting: a pre-pubescent Chicano girl moves into her family’s first actual (disappointing) home in a poor, Latino suburb of Chicago. She experiences several life-changing and hurtful things while she is also experiencing the changes of a new place and her body. She carefully watches the girls and women around her. She dreams of what her life will one day become. So you see life from the point of view of Northern American slums, from the LatinX population, from a girl who is becoming a woman. The vulnerability of all of this is underlined, high-lighted, and circled. While Esperanza is making herself vulnerable to us, it is just the plain truth that she is already about as vulnerable as a person can be and is looking for a way to build herself her own castle, her own fortress behind which she will be able to hide all that exposure to a sharp world. We watch and cringe as she runs out there into her world and we feel all the dangers before she ever sees them coming.

What I’m saying a little is that I didn’t love this book even though it is right up my alley. I had a much better time reading Julia Alvarez back in the day, but I do enjoy some approachable poetry, some experimental novella-ing. Perhaps it was that occasionally I felt a guilty twinge at having just read something I suspected was cheesy. I have the artist’s horror of cheesiness. I would recommend the book and I will be using bits of it in class.

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