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About the Author

Kyle Mandell is a first-year student at Harvard College intending to study History and Literature, Spanish and French. He is from White Plains, New York, and enjoys exploring Cambridge and teaching with CityStep Harvard. 

Redefining the American Novel

with Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive

by | Mar 3, 2022

The border crisis between the United States and Latin America has sparked countless headlines and controversies in the past few years. Recently, we’ve heard devastating news of the conditions people are facing in their journeys to the border and the heartbreaking atrocities that take place once they arrive there. Hearing these stories, it’s often hard to envision that people are experiencing them first-hand.

Last semester, I took the first half of Humanities 10 — Harvard’s first-year writing and literature survey course — and consequently spent most of my nights in the library, reading classic texts from Homer’s Odyssey to St. Augustine’s Confessions to Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. Even a book-loving humanities student like myself often struggled to stay engaged in the hundreds of pages of the prophetic Confessions or the cyclical tales of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. The first half of the course moves chronologically, and this year, the semester concluded with a new addition to the syllabus: Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. The story centers around a troubled family traveling cross-country through the United States as the parents record a soundscape documentary. I couldn’t put it down. 

Accompanying this family of four across the country, we gain a glimpse into the characters’ relationships and dynamics: a pair of spouses falling out of love, a mother who struggles to connect with her children, highlighted by her omission of their names as she refers to her son as “the boy” and her daughter as “the girl.” We grapple with the difference between a documentarian and a documentarist (described as a librarian compared to a chemist) and listen to the father’s stories of the Apache (whose history motivated the project that started this road trip in the first place). Most importantly, we delve into the mother’s concerns about the “lost children” struggling to make their way across the border between the United States and Mexico. The novel stands out for its intertextuality: with frequent references to works such as Lord of the Flies, The Road, or the photography of Sally Mann, the history of U.S. narratives reverberates throughout the book. The text comprises a variety of aesthetic mediums, with photographs in the mother’s boxes she brings with her as well as the auditory imagery brought about by the soundscape project.

While this story may be considered an American novel — perhaps the next great American novel — its emphasis lies in Latin America, following the titular “lost children” and their harrowing journeys towards and across the border. The most heavily featured intertextual medium is another book: Elegies for Lost Children, a work of Luiselli’s own invention. Throughout the road trip, the mother reads the story that follows a group of migrant children in their dangerous journeys. We read of children riding atop a freight train known as la Bestia — in English, “the Beast” — named for the deadly risk of hopping aboard. Through this outer frame of the family, we become more engrossed in the plight of the children of Latin America seeking refuge, as does the mother who becomes more eager to publicize the issue of the border crisis the farther they travel.

Upon first reading the Elegies, Luiselli vicariously explains the format of this central sub-text through the narrator, writing, “the book is written in a series of numbered fragments, sixteen in total; each fragment is called an ‘elegy,’ and each elegy is partly composed using a series of quotes. Throughout the book, these quotes are borrowed from different writers” (Luiselli 142-143). The Elegies play a critical role within Lost Children Archive as they create an inner story around which the larger plot revolves. Therefore, Luiselli presents their structure so that readers might approach them with less confusion and more understanding as to how this book-within-a-book fits and should be consumed in the context of the greater text.

I find that Luiselli’s method of storytelling and the framework structure of the novel is critical to understanding its purpose. The text serves as a call to action, using the literature as a means through which to inspire a more informed and motivated mindset towards the plight of these children. In the same way that Luiselli presents a detailed explanation of the Elegies as well as their presence within the novel, she demonstrates how critical they are to the work that the mother is producing in the story: the soundscape documentary. In a moment of realization, the mother says, “It comes to me that I have to record the sound documentary about lost children using the Elegies” (140).

 The Elegies serve a critical purpose for the readers of Lost Children Archive in contextualizing the subject of the novel and setting the stakes for the issue the book seeks to explore. Likewise, the narrator comes to that same conclusion for her documentary within the story, thus boosting the credibility of the Elegies for readers and what they should learn from reading them as well as the greater novel. Luiselli additionally promotes this urgency through a child’s perspective, as the son later narrates, “I had to be patient and not lose hope, and concentrate on reading about the lost children, with my flashlight, until the sun came back” (283). Even the son — lost and separated from his sister at this point in the story — understands the importance of reading this text in hopes that it will give him a deeper understanding of where to look. Taking this moment away from the context of childhood innocence, Luiselli further demonstrates the role of the Elegies to these fictional characters as she hopes her own readers will read and internalize the issues presented in her book in a parallel form.

Through the Elegies, the core of this novel lies in the journey of these children in Latin America. The heart of the book allows us a glimpse into their story and perspectives that we often struggle to fully internalize and comprehend when they appear in headlines. The book brings up questions of ethics, responsibility and colonization. It also forces us to grapple with the relationship between the United States and Latin America at the border and how we tend to generalize or oversimplify the subject. As the story of the family eventually merges with that of the lost children of the Elegies, we witness an intersection of the two worlds that we tend to regard as so different from each other.

 This book is, above all, a work of fiction; the motivation and inspiration we take from it is based on the story of a made-up family. As such, Luiselli calls us to action indirectly, and the work is left to us readers to do our own research about how to engage with and work to resolve this issue in the real world. Of course, the book is not perfect, and some people — including Hum 10 classmates of mine — have debated its efficacy and overall quality. Some view the novel as an oversimplified and overly liberal take on the border crisis while others disapprove of the oversimplification of certain characters and groups of people. Regardless of these criticisms, the book is worth reading: a twist on a classic American novel that, ultimately, is not so much about the United States as it is its relationship with Latin America and how we as both readers and global citizens perceive that tension.

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