The Other Americans Summary
Laila Lalami’s novel The Other Americans shifts between multiple voices to trace the reactions in a family and a community when a man is hit by a car and left to die on a road in California’s Mojave Desert. As the novel opens, Moroccan composer Nora Guerraoui recalls a critical trip she took from Oakland to her hometown in the Yucca Valley four years ago after having received the devastating news of the death of her father, Driss Guerraoui.
In this flashback, Nora arrives home, and she is immediately thrust back into the family dynamics she escaped through her work: her mother Maryam’s disapproval of her “impractical” life choices and her sister Salma’s jealousy of the special bond Nora shared with Driss. As the family members arrange for Driss’s funeral, Nora recalls her time in school, where her offbeat intelligence was assumed to be a learning disability. Nora explains that it was her father who advocated for her and later encouraged her to pursue music. Given her awareness of the pervasive racism in their town, Nora is plagued by the suspicion that her father’s death was more than an accident.
The one person who can confirm Nora’s suspicion is Efraín Mendez, an immigrant from Mexico who works with a local cleaning crew. An eyewitness to the hit-and-run, Efraín is reluctant to approach the police, fearing deportation. Thus, from its very beginning, the novel highlights the complex and multidimensional way race relations operate in American society.
At her father’s funeral, Nora reconnects with her highschool classmate Jeremy Gorecki, who once served as a marine in Iraq and is now a police officer. Having lost his mother as a child, Jeremy has a tragic past, which helps him empathize with Nora. Jeremy informs Nora that her father’s death is being investigated by Erica Coleman, a competent detective; this briefly lifts Nora’s spirits. Jeremy himself is shown to be grappling with intense insomnia and suffering from post-traumatic stress, through which he relives painful memories from his childhood and time in Iraq. Jeremy is pursuing a college degree in American History while supporting his volatile veteran friend Bryan Fierro, whom he accompanies to anger management counseling.
Meanwhile, the news that Driss willed his life insurance sum of $250,000 solely to Nora further complicates the relationship between her and Salma. While attending a school play in which Salma’s twins, Aida and Zaid, are performing, the sisters have a bitter quarrel. At the school play, Nora also notices that Aida and Zaid are given nonspeaking roles, which echoes her own experience growing up as an immigrant in America.
The story of Nora’s family’s move from Morocco is further unveiled through the perspectives of Maryam and Driss. Driss was a graduate student of philosophy in Casablanca in 1981, when the government began to crack down on protesters and students, who were viewed as activists for democracy. To remain safe, Driss and Maryam moved to the United States with Salma. They eventually bought a small donut shop in the Mojave, refurbishing it and renaming it “Aladdin Donuts.” After Nora was born and the business became profitable, Driss and Maryam bought a house. Though the family ostensibly achieved the American dream, Maryam, who took a break from the business to raise Salma and Nora, continued to feel isolated in America and gradually found herself alienated from Driss himself.
Nora recalls how in 2001, Driss’s idealized American dream suffered a setback. Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks, Aladdin Donuts was burnt down in a hate crime. Despite this, Driss refused to return to Casablanca, choosing instead to open a diner with the insurance money from the fire.
To preserve Driss’s memory, Nora decides to stay back in the Mojave and run his diner. She also offers $25,000 as a reward for information about her father’s accident. Struggling with her mother’s disapproval of her life choices, Nora shifts to...
(The entire section is 1,200 words.)