This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.
“One way I've been describing Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive
is that it reads like a classic — as though, even now, you can tell that this is a novel that will be pored over and taught, and will carry its gravity, grace, and intelligence into the future. But it's also immensely compelling, and the second half is so page-turning I raced through on first read, desperate to find out what happened. The story of this family is both revelatory and intimate, and Lost Children Archive
is an extraordinary achievement.” — Jill O., Powell’s Books
Historical texts are by definition retrospective. They invite authors and readers to shuffle through the past until they land on a particular event or person that provokes their curiosity, and then to imagine backward. As Valeria Luiselli alludes to in her remarkable Lost Children Archive
, archival work and writing are much more about pulling from the past what we need in the present than they are about recapturing the truth of a lost day to day. In that way, archives are safe spaces. We can pull from them to remember, to mourn, to fantasize, to inspire, but we don’t have to live those moments.
Lost Children Archive
acknowledges the limits of the archival process while simultaneously distorting the safety of historical narrative. The parents at the center of the novel are a soundscape documentarian and documentarist (a vital distinction in the book), who take a family road trip out west to catalog both the remains of Apache culture and the sounds and stories of the immigration crisis in the borderland. Narrated in turn by the mother and her young son, Lost Children Archive
explores the competing importance and futility of capturing the voices of people, especially children, trapped in either the annals of history (the Apache) or the hell of dangerous border crossings and family separation. To what extent is the parents’ work a passive warehousing of what can feel like an insurmountable problem, a historical inevitability? To what extent is it a powerful testimonial of human rights abuses that can be used right now to effect change? Is one a documentarian, or a documentarist; is the archivist objective or activist?
All this makes Lost Children Archive
sound like a heady work, and it is supremely smart, but it is also beautiful, true, and intimate. Against the choral backdrop of the border crisis, Luiselli brings into focus the individual voices of the family and the people they encounter on their trip. Parents will note the exquisite detail and realism of Luiselli’s depiction of mothering, and the novel’s portrait of how a marriage can break against conflicting world views is believable and heartbreaking. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly
observes, “Juxtaposing rich poetic prose with direct storytelling and brutal reality and alternating narratives with photos, documents, poems, maps, and music, Luiselli explores what holds a family and society together and what pulls them apart.”
At a brutal moment in the American present, where we can choose to act as though the borderland occupies a space apart from our daily lives — a collection of stories, not people, to be read later, if desired — Lost Children Archive
reckons with the ways the voices we hear and those we choose to ignore nevertheless pierce our lives and shape our future.
Check out the rest of Powell's Picks of the Month here