Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1200
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 Driss’s log cabin in the desert and begins a romantic relationship with Jeremy.
However, Nora’s view of Driss changes when she discovers that her father had recently placed an order for an engagement ring. Nora’s suspicion that Driss was having an affair is confirmed by Detective Coleman, who has found texts to a younger woman on Driss’s phone. This knowledge devastates Nora, but it also forces her to view her father as an average human being rather than a paragon.
Meanwhile, encouraged by the offer of a reward, Efraín comes forward as a witness. His testimony reveals that the silver Ford that ran down Driss belonged to his elderly neighbor and bowling alley owner, Anderson Baker. Anderson confesses to the accident, stating that he mistook Driss for a “coyote.” Nora finds Anderson’s testimony suspicious, given the contentious history between the Guerraouis and the Bakers: Anderson resented having to give up his parking spaces to “outsider” Driss as the latter’s business grew. A.J., Anderson’s son, is a virulent racist: Nora recalls how he wrote racial slurs on her locker in high school. Despite Nora’s misgivings, the judge is lenient with Anderson. It is suggested that Anderson is protected by his white privilege.
As Nora’s romantic relationship with Jeremy grows, Jeremy’s experience in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq continues to be an unresolved issue between the two. As a woman of Moroccan descent, Nora finds it difficult to accept the fact that her boyfriend has been involved in violence against Iraqi civilians. Meanwhile, Jeremy feels guilty about the racist attitudes in which he participated in Baghdad and is keen to distinguish himself from people like A.J.
When Nora catches Fierro spying on her and Jeremy while they are making love, Jeremy unleashes his aggression on Fierro, beating him savagely. Jeremy’s violence disturbs Nora, and she decides to break up with him. Disillusioned, she returns to Oakland, where she finds herself accepted at the prestigious Silverwood Music Center’s summer performance festival. Yet, the issue of Nora’s otherness crops up at Silverwood, too, with white patrons often confusing her for hired help or a composer’s guest.
Back in Yucca Valley, the heartbroken Jeremy is struggling with his breakup with Nora. He happens to pull A.J. over for a minor traffic infringement. However, when Jeremy discovers that A.J. has a drunk driving charge against him and has been driving on an expired license for months, he brings A.J. to the police station for questioning. A hostile A.J. directs a racial slur against Detective Coleman in the police station. Talking to A.J.’s mother, Helen Baker, Coleman discovers that it was A.J. who had been behind the wheel the night Driss died.
Finally, Nora moves back to the Mojave, reuniting with Jeremy and her mother; she is now beginning to understand the complex perspectives of both of them. Nora learns that Maryam knew about Driss’s affair all along, which makes her view her mother in a more forgiving light. As the novel closes, Nora reveals that A.J. was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison on charges of manslaughter.
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