Early in Valeria Luiselli’s virtuosic new novel, Lost Children Archive, the narrator realizes she has entered an ethical minefield. She makes radio documentaries for a living, and while she knows in her bones that testimonios must be recorded of the thousands of unaccompanied kids fleeing the calamities of their homelands, she worries about the implications of the endeavor.
“How can an artwork be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?” she asks herself. “Isn’t art for art’s sake so often an absolutely ridiculous display of intellectual arrogance? … And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? … No one decides to not go to work and start a hunger strike after listening to the radio in the morning.”
Readers of Luiselli’s four previous books will detect her own ethos in this lament. In 2017, she published the slender but devastating Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, which chronicled her work as a translator for child migrants caught up in the U.S. court system. It won rave reviews and an American Book Award, but Luiselli strikes me as the kind of writer who’d prefer a hunger strike. Lost Children Archive, then, can almost be read as the Mexico City-born intellectual’s second attempt to rally the citizenry of her adopted country — this time, with a 400-page novel that auto-fictionalizes a cross-country road trip she took with her family a few years ago.
I admit to my own skepticism during the first half of Lost Children Archive. While the narrator is clearly concerned about the humanitarian crises at the border, she is far more preoccupied with her marriage — or what remains of it. She and her husband both work with sound, but they have lapsed into silence around each other. When they pack up their New York apartment to travel across the Southwest with their kids, she fears it will be the family’s last hurrah and obsesses about their future to such an extent, I couldn’t help wondering about the author’s intent. Have the world’s catastrophes sucked our empathetic wells so dry, our collective curiosity must first be whet by an almost-affair at a pitstop before we can absorb another tragedy? Regardless, Mom’s agonizing grows a bit tiresome, as do the cutesy one-liners delivered by her kids in the backseat: a precocious 5-year-old girl and her 10-year-old brother.
But the story gains traction when Mom starts reading a little red book called Elegies for Lost Children. This book within a book is loosely based on the 13th-century children’s crusade, in which tens of thousands of children purportedly traveled alone across Europe to what they believed to be holy lands, but instead often turned out to be slave markets. In this version, penned by a fictitious Ella Camposanto (the Spanish word for graveyard), the children ride atop a train described as “beastly” (which conjures the train that many north-bound migrants risk life and limb to ride: La Bestia). Not only that, but the ominous first lines of Elegies (“Mouths open to the sky, they sleep. Boys, girls: lips chapped, cheeks cracked, for the wind whips day and night”) mirror those of Lost Children Archive: “Mouths open to the sun, they sleep. Boy and girl, foreheads pearled with sweat, cheeks red and streaked white with dry spit.”
In time, you realize that virtually every element that has been introduced into the narrative — from Dad’s stories about “the last people on the entire continent to surrender to the white-eyes” (the Chiricahuas) to the only flora the daughter can identify by name (the saguaro) to everyone’s favorite road song (David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”) — is coalescing in a polyphony of literary techniques limned from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and individual phrasings culled from classics like Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. The piccolos in the backseat harmonize like birdsong as the family ventures deeper into a desert “where the earth and sky know no division.”
The family makes it to an airport near Artesia, New Mexico, in time to witness migrant children marching “in single file, looking like they’ve surrendered, silent prisoners of some war they didn’t even get to fight” toward the plane on the runway that will deport them back to their homelands. Mom grabs the mesh fence between them and unleashes her fury, hurtling insults at a security force who cannot hear, until her husband finally wraps his arms around her, “not an embrace but a containment.”
Cue the percussion, for now the son takes over the narration — and rightfully so, for “it’s his version of the story that will outlive us; his version that will remain and be passed down.”
Turns out, the kids have been paying far closer attention to the worlds both within and beyond the car than Mom or Dad imagined possible. For the next 150 pages, the soundscape rumbles with the ghosts of every kid-led adventure story that ever broke your heart, culminating in a scene that is absolutely exhilarating.
By the final cadence, Lost Children Archive has become not only an indictment of U.S. immigration policy (and perhaps even of divorce) but a requiem memorializing every child who has ever lost their right to a childhood. In addition to the medieval crusaders, Luiselli evokes the Native American youth who walked the Trail of Tears, as well as the abandoned kids who rode the “orphan trains” of the 1900s. Most of all, she’s writing of the underage Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans who are, at this very moment, embarking on profoundly dangerous journeys — only “to be removed, relocated, erased, because there’s no place for them in this vast empty country.” If the reverberations of their small but brave footsteps don’t incite us to action, it is frightening to fathom what will. Because, as Luiselli artfully shows, a child’s suffering is a haunting that will forever echo in our bones.
Correction: This story’s headline initially characterized Lost Children Archive as Luiselli’s second novel. It is her third. The Observer regrets the error.