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A Salvadoran girl named Anita attempts to enter the United States in 2020. A Jewish boy named Samuel flees Austria through the Kindertransport during WWII. These two children at first may seem completely unconnected, but in Isabel Allende’s latest novel, “The Wind Knows My Name,” their perspectives are brought in concert. Through these parallel stories, Allende’s novel demonstrates the struggles of migrant children across history. The plot of “The Wind Knows My Name” is timely, but its short length and varying storylines create an overall underwhelming experience.
The novel’s premise is touching and ambitious. Allende traces out how violence, migration, and intolerance affect children across two periods of history that readers may view as disparate. Allende’s treatment of historical and contemporary crises is lyrical in its empathy. However, the horrors of the Holocaust combined with the migrant crisis in the modern United States is a lot to juggle. Allende attempts to include many profound, interweaving stories — over seven points of view are used throughout the book — in only 250 pages, which leads to too much exposition and oversimplification.
Instead of letting the narrative show why the border crisis is unacceptable, Allende tells this to the reader quite explicitly. For instance, on the topic of migration in the United States, the novel’s supposedly-expert lawyer asks, “What’s the solution, Selena?” to a woman who works with migrant children. She responds with a page-long statement concerning border policies. While these scenes illuminate the information that the story intends to impart on its audiences, they also tear the reader out of the story. Allende also underutilized Anita’s point of view throughout the novel. The reader only catches glimpses of Anita’s full perspective, which is haunting in its depiction of violence through the lens of childlike innocence. Yet before these scenes are fully fleshed out, Allende brings an adult into the story to over-explain everything that just occurred.
However, when Allende allows her characters to speak for themselves, the novel takes on a much more pressing tone. The dual stories of Samuel and Anita are heartbreaking and eye-opening. Allende does not shy away from drawing parallels between the plight of Jewish people during World War II and the struggles of those attempting to escape violence in modern-day Latin America. Samuel and Anita do not hail from the same places, but they both face immense hardships during their youth that define how they deal with life. Eventually, their lives also start to intertwine as the narrative progresses, leaving the reader with a sense of satisfaction by the novel’s end.
Allende also uses lush, descriptive prose to immerse the reader in the novel's scenes; readers easily feel the palpable experiences of the characters as they travel from El Salvador to England to California. Samuel experiences culture shock “like a slap in the face” in the bright streets of New Orleans. When Selena goes to El Salvador to research Anita’s family, the reader can almost taste “the pupusas locas, each the size of a dinner plate, filled with cheese, beans, and chicharrón.” The characters’ experiences are immediate and tantalizing, allowing the reader to step directly into their shoes.
The novel could have reached its full potential if Allende had put more effort into fleshing out its main characters and letting their stories speak for themselves. Often the novel’s themes felt spoon-fed, as if Allende did not respect the ability of her audience to reach their own conclusions. Dealing with topics such as the Holocaust and the current Latin American migrant crisis requires much care, but the novel feels rushed. Despite her passion for the topics discussed in the book, Allende’s lack of subtlety and attention given to some characters results in an underwhelming work. “The Wind Knows My Name” is touching, but it could have been something greater with a little more care.
—Staff writer Hannah E. Gadway can be reached at email@example.com.
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