So. Sandra Cisneros. She’s awesome. Yeah. And that title about tropical fruit agriculture in the American middle west? That’s just because I read The House on Mango Street (set in Chicago) and fell desperately in love with the writing of Sandra Cisneros.
The House on Mango Street details pieces of the life of Esperanza Spalding, daughter of immigrants, growing up in Chicago. Living in a big family in a big city in a group of people with whom she’s not sure she belongs, Esperanza struggles to overcome the circumstances in which she grows up (poverty, crime, lack of flexibility due to lack of citizenship, etc.) and ultimately embark on that ubiquitous human journey- to find herself, or at least parts of the person she is (or believes or wants herself to be).
The book is written in very short chapters, all with fairly large type. It’s a pretty quick book to read, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Even more than other short-but-powerful books (take The Great Gatsby as one example), the book has me thinking endlessly about the pieces of the story that Cisneros chose to include and why and how they fit together in Esperanza’s mind, Cisneros’s mind, and in my own. Unlike The Great Gatsby or other relatively short works of fiction, Cisneros doesn’t give background or even a lot of prose to pull portions together. Instead, she lets the reader mumble and struggle and annotate about, “Why has it suddenly gone from cats back to Sally again?” However, I was extremely distracted while reading and did not annotate much like that and instead mostly wrote, “Wow.” over and over because I was in awe. So I was so distracted by the prose that Cisneros did choose to include and the poignancy of it that I’m just now starting to fit pieces together even though I read this almost two weeks ago.
I have grown up in a really fortunate, sheltered way, so I look at a lot of books about growing up in poverty and about terrible life conditions with a lens of removal. I’ve yet to experience those things firsthand, so brutally honest writing is my gateway to that. I think Cisneros may have taken over Angela’s Ashes as my top resource on this. It’s so subtle, so ugly it’s beautiful (especially with descriptions like “The Monkey Garden,” which I’ll get to later). Granted, I read Angela’s Ashes a year ago and need to reread it, but that book is much longer, just as specific, and I feel like Frank McCourt focuses more on the people and character development than Cisneros, who is building circumstance in a short period of time in each chapter. While the emotions are raw in both pieces, The House on Mango Street brought me to tears, and that’s saying something.
I had read “The Monkey Garden” for class, but I had lacked context, reasons for the actions, background on the character of Sally. Rereading it, re-annotating, was incredibly powerful. Cisneros’s attention to details (the holes in stockings, the shape of shoes, cracks in the sidewalk) make stories come to life with a vivid feeling that puts you right there. It’s incredible.
To conclude, a five-star book. My thin, used bookstore paperback copy now has annotations everywhere, and I’m adding Cisneros to my reading list. My friend Gen is writing a thesis essay on the idea that good things come from bad situations, and this is definitely one of them.
I should get reading (digging into that immense reading list) or really just working on my lab reports. And math homework. And a number of other things. But if you have the afternoon and it’s not raining/super slippery iced over sidewalks like it is here, walk to your local independently owned book shop, buy a copy of The House on Mango Street, and read it.