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2013/05/05

The House On Mango Street

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


For the past two years, on April 23rd, volunteers across the US and UK have handed out free books as part of World Book Night, in hopes of spreading the joy of reading to those who might not pick up a book very often.  To become a "Book Giver", one has to apply via the website; part of the application process is to look through the list of that year's chosen titles, and choose a first and second choice of which one you'd like to give.  I’ve had the pleasure of being a “Book Giver” both years now, and as I sat at my computer a few months ago, looking through the list of available books for 2013, a title that I recognized popped out at me.  It was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, a book that I remembered reading in college and enjoying so much that I didn’t even consider selling it back to the university book store at the end of the semester, like I did with most of my other textbooks.  Since the World Book Night organizers ask that you be familiar with the book that you give, I made The House On Mango Street my number one choice, and was happy to receive an email later on, telling me that it was the book that I’d be sharing with others.


Not only was sharing The House On Mango Street special because it was part of a wonderful program, but because it was also a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book.  A collection of forty-four (sometimes extremely) short stories, The House On Mango Street has the distinction of being about a specific nationality (people of Mexican descent), but being completely universal at the same time. While any reader is bound to find at least one thing within the stories that speaks to their own experiences, they’ll probably find many more than just one.

As explained in an intimate forward in the beginning of this edition of the book, Cisneros began writing the stories in the novel in 1980, not knowing that they’d all come together as The House On Mango Street, although she’d already thought of that as a title for some of her written work.  Pulling material for the vignettes from a little bit of her own life and family, she also used her experiences living in what she calls a “down-at-the-heels…(Chicago) neighborhood, before it (was) discovered by folks with money”.  Her teaching job at that time was a source of sad inspiration too, as she heard the stories of students who had dropped out of high school but were working towards their diploma; students who suffered from abusive mates or parents, who had parents trying to cajole them into dropping out again so that they could go to work and help pay the bills, or single parents who were trying to balance studies and life in general.  The forward also gives a description of the author’s writing process for the book that will probably sound familiar to any writer.  Cisneros explains: “ The people I wrote about were real, for the most part, from here and there, now and then, but sometimes three real people would be braided together into one made-up person…I cut apart and stitched together events to tailor the story, gave it shape so it had a beginning, middle and end, because real life stories rarely come to us complete.  Emotions, though, can’t be invented, can’t be borrowed.  All the emotions my characters feel, good or bad, are mine.”

Author Sandra Cisneros
This braiding, stitching, remembering, and feeling come together beautifully in the book.  Esperanza, The House On Mango Street’s main character and narrator, is a unique storyteller.  On one hand, she begins telling the reader these stories while she’s obviously still a child, and because of that, some might say that she’s an unreliable narrator.  But instead of assuming that this has a negative connotation, you have to consider whether Esperanza’s observations aren’t somehow truer than an adult’s, not clouded by decades of biases and  preconceptions yet.  There are times that the narrative takes on the tone of an overall storyteller too, one who sees everything happening, and tells the events in a voice that makes it almost like a collection of little folk tales.

Cisneros has a knack for using plain language, and that definitely isn’t meant as any kind of insult.  In a section of the forward that touches on this, Cisneros tells us her reasons for gravitating towards this.  It makes the book more accessible to any type of reader, while still being full of lovely uses of language; explaining the difference between some neighbors’ laughter and she and her sister’s, Esperanza says that it’s “not the shy ice cream bells’ giggle of Rachel and Lucy’s family, but all of a sudden and surprised like a pile of dishes breaking.”  As the book progresses and Esperanza ages, there are even more moments that are universally relatable, that any reader who has made the journey from childhood to adulthood can understand. “Everything is holding its breath inside me.  Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas.”

As with most books that I've talked about on 2FL, I don't want to give too much away and spoil the adventure for you if you--hopefully--decide to read it yourself. And the quote that I mentioned above is a fantastic description for discovering this book, if you haven't already: "Everything (inside of it) is waiting to explode like Christmas".  I highly recommend seeking it out, as well as any and all of Cisneros' other work.  You can find her website at www.sandracisneros.com.

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