Paul Luo

United States

Behold the Dreamers

January 18, 2021

Race. Class. Immigration. The American Dream.

These seem like weighty, complex topics that might be difficult to cover in one work. Imbolo Mbue, however, brilliantly covers all of these issues, examining them through the lens of the 2008 financial crisis, in her book Behold the Dreamers.
Behold the Dreamers comes across as a rather lengthy book, but every page is full of meaning. Drawing on her own experience losing her job in 2008, Mbue depicts the lives of two Cameroonians—Jende and his wife Neni—who travel to America to pursue their dreams of becoming rich. Unfortunately for them, the year is 2008. Jende quickly sees the more realistic side of the American dream: as Lehman Brothers struggles to stay afloat amidst the economic crisis, Jende is fired from his job. Without his only form of income, he struggles to pay the tuition for his wife to finish her degree, and to make matters worse, they have a seven-year-old son. Behold the Dreamers gives readers another perspective to look at the economic crisis, from the view of the people who suffered most, from the view of the people that tend to be ignored, those who are the most vulnerable to unexpected dangers like this, immigrants who work low-paid jobs.

Mbue gives us a more unbiased view of the crisis, writing about the crisis from the perspective of a chauffeur. During my first reading, this felt peculiar, as one character provides little of a window to get a comprehensive view of a significant historical event. The author, however, compensates with well-crafted dialogue, as well as depicting the seemingly small, everyday issues that the character faces in a realistic, full way. For example, when talking about shopping, Jende says, “fine white-people stores like Target,” showing his perspective on class and race differences. With details like these, Mbue paints a detailed, realistic portrait of the struggle of a foreigner in the United States.

Mbue shows us just how cruel immigration can be by depicting the effect the crisis has on the protagonist’s personality. Mbue delicately lays down the foundation for our protagonist, with everyday small depictions. During the first few chapters, Jende is described as a “loving” man who cares a lot about the well-being of his family, doing everything in his power to support his family. Just as readers have fallen in love with this hardworking protagonist, however, Mbue tears this image down with the 2008 economic crisis, leaving readers scrambling to find the Jende they love in the ruins, and trying their best to not hate him. And we do, we see glimmers of the Jende that was a kind, loving man. That one detail that keeps readers from seeing Jende as the antagonist, the one detail that leaves readers thinking for a moment that he is still a good man, but is just being treated unfairly; that is when the author pulls us right back to the cynical man who yells at his family in pain and frustration. The author inserts several descriptions of Jende taking his anger out on his family, going from “Love you, honey” to “Shutup! Don’t you dare say another word!” This shocked me, as Jende seemed like such a kind man in previous chapters. Reading these sections, I felt a little bit of hate towards Jende (a lot of hate, actually). In including such an abrupt transformation, Mbue shows how the struggle of events like the 2008 crisis can bring out the worst in people. Despite creating so much hate for Jende in the last part, Mbue still manages to make me feel compassionate for Jende in the next chapter; it is this back and forth between hating and feeling compassionate that made me finish this book in one sitting.

Mbue forms contrast between the characters in the story, one of the reasons he manages to create so much resonance with readers is by infinitely emphasizing the sufferings of Jende. Mrs. Mbue creates FOIL characters to achieve this. Mbue creates FOIL characters in the story to put into perspective (like mentioned before) who the real sufferers were in this crisis. Mr. Mbue sculpted the FOIL characters in the story perfectly, as the wife’s personality puts emphasis on the stubborn and traditional ideas of Jende, while Clark (the high ranked official that Jende works for), shows us how Jende treats family and work very differently. Through dialogue between the protagonist and Clark’s family, Mbue shows us that the crisis had a very small impact on the upper classes, by writing about Clark’s life after the fall of Lehman Brothers, attending birthday parties, sending his kids to piano lessons, brunch at their house in Vermont, etc. While on the other hand, Jende’s family was barely surviving. The contrast makes the seemingly simple story multi-faceted; it is what draws compassion but also hate towards Jende, this mixed feeling of compassion and hate that Mbue creates contradiction and allow readers to almost walk with Jende hopelessly along the streets of New York, cry with him after they barely have enough money for beef stew.

          Behold the dreamers opened my horizons and helped me to understand just how devastating the economic crisis was.     

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  • January 18, 2021 - 9:39pm (Now Viewing)

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