Héctor has longed dreamed of a better life for himself, his wife Lilia, and their infant daughter, Alejandra. He has been making plans for some time to cross the border that divides their native Mexican and the United States with the help of a coyote. While Lilia understands and supports Héctor’s dream, she is somewhat conflicted about it, not just because of its inherent danger — she also feels loyalty to Cucita, the grandmother who raised her after the death of her mother, and her homeland. She knows no life beyond their village of Puerto Isadore, situated not far from the beautiful resorts that lure tourists to the Mexican beaches.
Leaving Lilia and Alejandra behind, Héctor embarks on a treacherous journey, promising that he will send word when he arrives in their new home. As Lilia anxiously awaits confirmation of Héctor’s safety, she encounters Emanuel, a childhood friend who still has strong feelings for her. As the days drag on and Lilia’s faith in Héctor’s dream waivers, she is tempted by Emanuel professions of love and loyalty. Eventually, Emanuel offers to arrange for Lilia and Alejandra to follow Héctor, rather than wait for him to earn enough money to arrange for their safe transport to his side. Against Héctor’s wishes, Lilia accepts Emanuel’s offer and begins a risky journey that will change all of their lives forever.
Debut author Michel Stone has penned an insightful, deeply moving saga exploring what one family is willing to risk in order to pursue their dream, set against the contemporary theme of illegal immigration of Mexican citizens across the Texas border.
Twenty-year-old Lilia is a beautiful young mother, devoted to her husband, six-month-old daughter, and the grandmother who single-handedly raised her. Her mother’s best friend, Rosa, like her grandmother, does not think much of Héctor’s obsession with a new life in the U.S. and discourages Lilia from following him, even to the point of trying to make Lilia believe that Héctor has perished when some time passes before Lilia hears from him. Lilia’s mother died giving birth to her and she never knew her father, so she is unaware of the family history that fuels Rosa’s bitter outlook. Lilia knows only that she and Alejandra belong with Héctor and when Emanuel stirs feelings in her, she becomes frightened and feels even more alone, determined that she and Alejandra — who sleeps with Héctor’s shirt tucked into her basket so that she will not forget her father’s scent — must join Héctor as soon as possible, rather than wait the year or more it could take him to earn enough money to secure their safe passage.
Stubborn and determined, Lilia accepts Emanuel’s offer and embarks upon the journey with his uncle, a coyote, completely oblivious to the perilous nature of the trip or the evils that can befall an innocent young mother and her child. Completely at the mercy of those into whose hands she has thrust her own and Alejandra’s fate, Lilia has no choice but to follow their commands and submit to their wills, blinding trusting that she and Alejandra will soon be reunited with Héctor.
Lilia does not appreciate the conditions under which Héctor successfully traveled first to Texas and then on to South Carolina, while others in his party were not as lucky. Héctor is unwilling to submit Lilia and Alejandra to the same harrowing, life-threatening trip he survived, but his warnings to Lilia fall on deaf ears. With the death of Cucita, Lilia is alone, lonely, and impatient, despite Héctor’s report of finding good friends, steady work, and a comfortable home in the United States. Alongside Miguel, a fellow immigrant, Héctor is offered shelter by Pablo, Miguel’s cousin, and his family, and immediately lands a job on a tree farm with a compassionate and generous couple, Lucas and Elizabeth. If only Lilia will be patient, Héctor will be able to provide for her and their daughter.
Stone brings a depth of understanding and compassion to her characters, each of whom is simultaneously heroic and foolish in their own right. Héctor is a proud, strong young man who dreams only of the life about which he has heard is possible in the United States and wants nothing but to provide for himself and his family. That dream has fueled him for years and compels him to endure unspeakable hardships that destroy less determined and steel-willed men. As for Lilia, she is equally proud and once she determines that she will follow her husband, nothing — not even common sense — will stop her. She has no idea what dangers lurk along the way to South Carolina and by the time she realizes that she should have heeded Héctor’s warnings, it is too late.
From that point on, Stone’s story takes one heartbreaking turn after another and readers, by then long-invested in her characters’ well-being, will be unable to stop reading until they learn the fate of the young family. As in real life, answers are hard to come by and Stone’s tale is rooted in the stark realities of the drama that unfolds within The Iguana Tree’s pages. She unrelentingly takes readers along on Héctor and Lilia’s journey with no promise of a happy ending. Rather, as their lives fall apart and they become increasingly distant from each other and the love they both once clung to, the value of and toll extracted by Héctor’s dream becomes evident through Stone’s straight-forward, unembellished writing style. Her sparse narrative style adds to the story’s emotional power.
The Iguana Tree is both a timely and timeless tale of bravery and human folly, focused ambition and just plain stubborn determination. It is deeply compelling, imbued with characters who are as identifiable as they are foreign to readers who manage to grab hold of readers’ hearts and psyches and refuse to relinquish their grip long after their story has concluded. It is a notable first work of fiction that will leave readers clamoring for more from such a promising novelist. I highly recommend The Iguana Tree.