After reading Michel Stone’s The Iguana Tree, you may never think of The American Dream the same way again. For Hector and Lilia, the protagonists of Stone’s spare and striking debut novel, that dream—of immigrating to the United States, of working hard and slowly building a pleasant middle-class life—devolves into a haunting nightmare. Hector is an ambitious young Mexican man, frustrated with his life in Oaxaca and eager to make his way north. His pretty, strong-willed and woefully naïve wife Lilia, on the other hand, is content to remain in their village, happily raising their infant daughter, Alejandra, among friends and family. To him, America is, thrillingly, “The Great Opportunity.” To her, it is, terrifyingly, “The Unknown.”
Through the paid assistance of a coyote (smuggler), Hector travels illegally to the United States. On this journey, he learns that immigrants like him are called pollos, as vulnerable as “baby chick[s] the hen has left alone in the yard.” Emerging relatively unscathed from his crossing, he settles in with a family of kindly Anglos in South Carolina who pay him fairly for his labor. Immediately, Hector begins saving money to send for Lilia and Alejandra.
Longing to join her husband, Lilia makes the terribly unwise decision to head off without his assistance; casting her lot with a series of coyotes who are (even by the compromised standards of their profession) unscrupulous, she lands herself—and her baby—in harm’s way. She’s quickly acquainted with the lethal risks of coming to America: the violence, terror, thirst and sorrow of the voyage. In order to cross the border, Lilia consents to temporarily part with her baby, placing Alejandra in the care of a snake-caressing villainess who makes Cruella de Vil look like a cutie. It’s a foolish mistake born of desperation, and it brings about a tragic turn of events from which Hector and Lilia will never recover. In short order, the couple find themselves busted flat in Brownsville at the mercy of mercenaries. To say more would spoil the beauty, suspense and pathos of Stone’s tightly written and wildfire-paced plot.
Wildfire is an apt visual for The Iguana Tree, as the experience of reading the novel is rather like watching—at some helpless, though close proximity—the pitiless spread of an unchecked flame, from its first spark to its eventual indiscriminate devastation.
Stone shows a knack for revealing the ways in which small errors in judgment can blossom darkly into life-wrecking crises. Though her plot is chock-full of the type of tragedies that once filled Victorian potboilers (and that fill the daily lives of thousands of desperate people who trek from Mexico to the United States), she keeps a tight rein on her story, rigorously maintaining its taut and humane tone. Stone’s prose is elegantly crafted, yet The Iguana Tree possesses an almost documentary quality: It contains the potential horrors of everyday life, the awful, omnipresent dangers of being poor, undocumented and Hispanic in the United States. The fate of Hector and Lilia is heartrending, but also nothing special.
And that, ironically, is precisely what makes The Iguana Tree so very special. In an utterly unsentimental and non-exploitative manner, the author manages to dramatize a sensational topic in a way that seems utterly relatable and peculiarly normal. There are thousands of Hectors and Lilias who’ve suffered horribly in the deserts of Mexico and West Texas, and Stone’s work provides a master class in compassion for such souls. In a broader sense, Stone reveals us all to be Hectors and Lilias: wide-eyed wanderers who begin by chasing a dream and one day discover that the dream is chasing us.
Throughout the novel, there’s a sense that the border between the U.S. and Mexico symbolizes the distance between the life to which we’re born and the one we imagine for ourselves. Those who attempt to traverse those two points almost always discover that such a journey can change you in ways unimagined. It’s a lesson learned by Lilia after swimming the Rio Grande. Upon seeing that a traveling companion has suffered a deep cut that will almost certainly leave a scar, she wonders what the scar will mean to him years later. Then again, she supposes everyone has scars, “especially those who risk everything.”