Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024
Part I: Family Soundscape
The novel opens with the narrator in the passenger’s seat of a car with her husband, stepson, and biological daughter. They’re leaving New York City for Arizona, both adults working on separate soundscape projects. The narrator, using only pronouns and ambiguous signifiers to describe her...
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Part I: Family Soundscape
The novel opens with the narrator in the passenger’s seat of a car with her husband, stepson, and biological daughter. They’re leaving New York City for Arizona, both adults working on separate soundscape projects. The narrator, using only pronouns and ambiguous signifiers to describe her family, says the boy is ten and the girl is five. The boy’s mother died giving birth, and she doesn’t like to speak to the girl’s father. As her husband drives, she reflects on her life.
The narrator and her husband met on a soundscape project for New York University's Center for Urban Science and Progress. They were paired to document all languages found in New York City and fell in love in the process. They moved in together, got married, and joined families. However, things began to change when the project was finalized. The narrator went against her ethical judgment and took a job for steady work and health insurance, but this choice slowly ate away at her soul.
After a conversation with a woman named Manuela, the narrator begins to find purpose again. While picking up the kids from school, the women realize they both have indigenous roots in Mexico. Manuela reveals she came to the Bronx to make money, leaving her two daughters back in Mexico with her mother, but she got pregnant, and life became complicated. Eventually, Manuela’s mother sent the girls to the United States with a coyote—a person paid to smuggle refugees—but the girls were left in the desert and found by Border Patrol. As Manuela’s phone number was sewn into the girls’ dresses, the officer was kind enough to call Manuela and keep the girls at the detention center instead of sending them back.
The narrator asks if she can record Manuela speaking her native language. Manuela agrees if the narrator will translate some legal documents to secure her daughters a lawyer. The narrator tells Manuela she will do whatever she can to help and begins learning about immigration law.
The narrator uses this experience as a job opportunity and procures grant funding through NYU to work on the voices of immigrant children. Meanwhile, her husband starts his own research on the Apaches. Eventually, her husband tells her he will have to relocate for an undetermined amount of time and that he needs “silence and solitude.” He decides to drive to the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona to see the place where the last free peoples lived. He will leave at the end of the school year.
The narrator has two choices: stay in New York and continue her work, or rewrite her project in the Southwest and hope separate work lives don’t equal divorce. She feels she could continue her work on immigration by shifting the topic from the courts to the mortality rate at the border. Ultimately, she fears she will return to New York with her daughter at the end of the summer without the other half of her family.
On the boy’s tenth birthday, it’s time to hit the road. They eat, give him presents, and spend the night packing. The section ends with the narrator pondering the concept of relocation for immigrants and for herself.
In “Relocations,” the husband brings home empty boxes to pack his work items. The narrator and kids ask for their own.
Box I belongs to the narrator’s husband. It contains four notebooks, ten books that range from works by Susan Sontag to books on photography to The Collected Poems of Emily Dickenson, and a folder of clippings, scraps, and facsimile copies regarding various soundscape projects.
Routes & Roots
The family reaches Baltimore and stops at the aquarium for the boy’s birthday, a promise made and kept. At dusk, they stop in Virginia for the night, but the narrator can’t sleep. She grabs a book from her husband’s boxes and spends most of the night reading a story that seems to parallel her journey into the unknown.
The following day, they are back in the car. While the husband chats about Geronimo, an Apache leader, and the Apaches, the family becomes lost because the narrator refuses to use a GPS. She wants to ensure mapmakers never go out of business. During the confusion, they are pulled over for rolling through a stop sign and scolded for not having a booster seat for the girl. The wife promises to use the GPS if her husband will agree not to stop to purchase the expensive booster seat.
The husband asks the narrator if she has spoken to Manuela, but she hasn’t been able to reach her. She thinks about the girls at the border and is interrupted by her own daughter, who asks the definition of a refugee.
At a rest stop, the narrator tries to help the boy use his birthday gift—a new Polaroid camera—but the pictures continue to develop whitewashed. “Ma” and “Pa” try to explain the issue, but the boy believes it’s broken.
They reach a mountain village and rent a cabin for the night. Again, the narrator heads to the car to look through the boxes and select a book in hopes that it will inspire her. She grabs Susan Sontag’s journals and heads to the porch. As she reads, she notices numerous annotations she and her husband made years ago. She is caught up in passages about marriage and love and wonders if their annotations foreshadowed current events.
The next morning as the family packs up to leave, the boy throws a tantrum, shouting horrible things about the family and his “new” parents. The girl asks the boy and Pa to play the Apache game. Pa concedes, and they stay a little longer.
As the kids play, the narrator reads the instruction manual to the camera and realizes they must hide the photo in complete darkness until it has processed. She snaps a picture of the kids and places it in her book. She begins to see her children as a fading photograph.