Readers feel lost, yet rewarded, with novel ‘Lost Children Archive’

Author Valeria Luiselli
Author Valeria Luiselli Gatopardo

Getting lost in a story takes on different meaning in Valeria Luiselli’s latest book, “Lost Children Archive.”

As part of the Kansas City Public Library’s six-week “Becoming American” series exploring the history and impact of immigration in the United States, the FYI Book Club gathered to discuss Luiselli’s acclaimed novel.

Readers were by turns frustrated and rewarded by this complex novel about a family’s emotionally charged cross-country road trip, which parallels the physical and psychological rigors of immigrants crossing the desert in search of a new home.

Uncomfortably married documentarians are traveling for work to Arizona with their children from previous relationships. The couple collect soundscapes on their way to a mountainous region known as Apacheria. Though separated in years, the step-siblings are close and very aware that something is not right between their parents.

Several attendees likened their reading experiences to a lengthy road trip. Evelyn Summers of Raytown felt the book was “a bit of a slog, but I enjoyed the language. Many of her descriptions and turns of phrase were beautiful.”

Ann Martin of Leawood said, “This is a backbreaking book in so many ways. The glowing reviews kept me going. It’s a difficult book, and I appreciate Luiselli’s way of trying to wake us up.”

Cover Image
Alfred A. Knopf

Martin was referring to the shift of voice from one character to another and the author’s decision to leave the two children unnamed.

Although several readers found this choice unsettling, Denise Fletcher of Kansas City did not. “It’s to keep the objectivity for the reader,” she said. “We see these stories in the news and read about them, but they’re really not our stories. The author is keeping a distance for us.”

Judith Reagan of Kansas City saw it differently. “I thought it was due to anger,” she said. “Both adults are very angry and, if you name something, that’s an act of love. They are angry at each other, and it reflects on the children.”

Hanna Cusick of Kansas City took exception to another element in the book.

“I had a hard time understanding why the author kept pulling the focus back to the parents’ relationship instead of staying on the children and the mission of the trip. Her mission was so distinctly different from his,” Cusick said. “The story felt disoriented. I would get engaged, I found the list-making entrancing and interesting, and then I’d be pulled in a different direction. There are beautiful moments here when things are crystal clear, and then other times when things were so disjointed.”

This sense of disorientation for the reader was very apparent in a nonstop, 20-page, single sentence that is an entire chapter narrated by the 10-year-old boy as he and his sister run away into the desert.

For Summers, this chapter was the highlight of the book. “I loved the boy’s tone and voice,” she said. “The book changed for me at this point, and I didn’t want it to end. The author’s passion comes through, and it’s the only point in the book where I felt any passion.”

Cusick felt the author was “creating the confusion of being lost in this world. The desert, the heat, the water; the characters and reader are slowly losing their orientation.”

Marcus Rivas of Kansas City agreed, noting, “Children don’t know how to punctuate. They will write forever.” Smiling, Reagan said, “Children really do talk like that.”

Readers talked about the function of the single-sentence chapter in reflecting the chaos of the family unit.

“The disorientation of this chapter helps me understand what the book is about: the disorientation of people being lost,” Martin said. “The parents, the children, the immigrants.”

Selena Hughes felt that Luiselli was using this ambiguity purposefully. “The family is just as chaotic as the children who walk from Honduras,” she said. “This makes their story closer to that of the story of children traveling from Central America.

“Not calling the children by their names further erases the line between the family and the immigrants,” she said. “It’s clearer and easier for us as readers to identify with people when they are named. We can put cultural tags on them. But Luiselli is making a brave point by erasing this line. She’s making us ask, ‘Who are the lost children?’ I see it as the couple’s kids as well as the undocumented kids.”

Martin observed, “The family is lost. The parents are lost with each other. The children strike out on their own, mirroring the immigrant children, and they get lost in the desert – perhaps to become a part of the story. Their parents are so wrapped up in the other lost immigrant children.”

Fletcher added, “And the narrator’s children are actually the ones telling the stories of the lost immigrant children.”

Hughes listed the ways that Luiselli is pulling in the reader. “We have the children wanting the parents to tell them family origin stories,” she said. “The parents are deciding on what story to listen to in the car. We have the stories of the children the mother is archiving. Then we have the reader trying to have an experience and frame it in the ways that are comfortable for us.”

Readers nodded in agreement with a final observation by Cusick: “I have more ways of looking at this book than I did an hour ago.”

Kaite Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.

Join the club

The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email Look in the Arts+Culture section next month for an introduction to the next selection, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson. It’s in conjunction with an exhibit on illustrator Ralph Steadman coming to the library in June.