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 “Barbarian Nurseries,” by Hector Tobar, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011. The author courageously and humorously tackles social and racial conflicts in the United States.

The Los Angeles, Cal., Torres-Thompson family lives in a gated community in a palatial Spanish-style house with views of the Pacific. Scott is a Stanford-educated software millionaire whose computer programming company has been hit hard with the economic downturn.

Scott and Maureen are having a hard time coming to grips with their new economic reality. Two of their children, 11 and 8 years of age, are thriving in their expensive private school. Although neither parent wants to, they have had to make painful adjustments. Their life and marriage are disintegrating, along with their affluence. They have had to let go two of their three live-in help.

The one maid who remains is Araceli, a Mexican illegal immigrant. She has dreams of becoming an artist and attended the Instituto Nacional de Belles Artes. Lack of funds prevented her from finishing her studies and brought her to work for the Torres-Thompsons. Her responsibilities up till now have only been cooking and cleaning. Now she is expected to take on the responsibilities of her fired co-workers, one of which is to take care of the family’s three children, Brandon, Keenan and Samantha.

One night the parents argue. Both leave the house, each believing the other is still there with the children. Maureen has taken their baby daughter with her. The next morning Araceli wakes up to a house empty except for Brandon and Keenan. The parents are unreachable. For four days, Araceli is unable make contact with any relative, but cannot call the police for fear the boys will end up in foster care and that she might come to the attention of the immigration authorities. The only family relative Araceli knows about – from an old family photograph – is Señor Abuelo Torres, the estranged father of Scott. Araceli decides she must take the boys to find their grandfather. Fortunately, an address is printed on the back of the photo; her journey with the two children takes them to a poorer suburb of Los Angeles.

A long process begins that ends up in the courts. The author presents the various viewpoints on immigration. The book touches on the racial and cultural issues that plague Araceli, Scott and Maureen, as well as examining where legal and illegal immigrants fit into U.S. society today and how immigrants contribute to it. In this beautifully written novel, Mr. Tobar has created a story that will have readers thinking deeply about
the world today.