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Book Club Wed Sep 13 2006

Introduction: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

A mere one hundred and ten pages is the totality of this book. Comprised of short vignettes, this is a year in the life of Esperanza Cordero, a young girl coming of age in the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen. Narrated by Esperanza, The House on Mango Street follows her mother, father, brother and two sisters as they restart their lives in a new house with new hopes and new experiences awaiting them. Though the book may be short in length, the strength and meaning gleaned from these snippets of Esperanza's life are never compromised for their brevity.

The Cordero family is after little more than the American Dream: to do well by their family and to have a house of their own. In Esperanza this dream becomes something more; it's a belief in a story repeated time and again and a disappointment when each new house falls short of her built-up expectations. "They always told us that one day we would move into a house," Esperanza says, "a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn't have to move each year. And our house would have running water and pipes that worked. And inside it would have real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V. And we'd have a basement and at least three washrooms so when we took a bath we wouldn't have to tell everybody. Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence." It's a simple dream, nothing elaborate or beyond middle class means, but within the course of this narrative it's a dream that Esperanza does not get to experience.

Soft and sweet, sentimental but not without purpose, this is the story of a girl growing up, and it's not without some sadness that she enters adulthood. Esperanza is incredibly precocious and articulate in her thought, moving easily from the joy of high-heeled shoes to trepidation about what awaits her as a woman. Several women act as cautionary tales for Esperanza, serving as markers of what she is certain she does not want to become. When describing her great-grandmother, her namesake and a once wild woman who entered a depression in her marriage, Esperanza expounds that though she's inherited the woman's name, she does not want to inherit her place by the window, staring out at the world as it passes her by. Sally, a boisterous friend, runs off and gets married in effort to escape her abusive father. Unfortunately, her husband is not much better and in restricting contact with her friends and leaving physical destruction in the wake of his anger, Sally is no less afraid in this new life. Alicia, a neighbor, takes care of her family after her mother dies and divides her time desperately trying to educate herself because she is "afraid of nothing except four-legged fur. And fathers." Marin, another neighbor, exemplifies the stagnancy of existence, always dreaming of joining her boyfriend in Puerto Rico. After Marin is gone, Esperanza is sure that she's just somewhere else, "waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life."

This story is full of these snapshots of characters, capturing the people who play some role in Esperanza's life. They are as clear and as quick as a Polaroid, but with within these pages they are preserved in this girl's memory. Cisneros is very apt at describing the human consciousness, in one moment portraying the feeling when one realizes their father is not as strong as he used to be and in another accurately depicting the internal struggle with class and race when one "drive[s] into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight…that is how it goes and goes." The simplicity of The House on Mango Street is both startling and emotional, as it deftly encapsulating the surprise of growing up, the longing to know more and to be more, and the realization that one day all things could be taken away and lost. For Esperanza this is a dream of growing up strong and powerful, not passive like the other women she encounters, but "beautiful and cruel." This is a dream every bit as American as a home to call one's own and every bit as worthwhile an endeavor.

Sandra Cisneros was born and raised in Chicago, studying English first at Loyola University and earning her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. She has published poetry, short stories and a children's book. Both The House on Mango Street and Caramelo, her second novel, have been chosen by various cities for their "One Book" programs. To learn more about the author, visit her website at www.sandracisneros.com.

 
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