By: Elba Iris Pérez
Narrator: Marisa Blake
Simon & Schuster Audio
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication Date: 02/06/2024
My Rating: 4 Stars (ARC)
The inaugural winner of Simon & Schuster’s Books Like Us contest, Elba Iris Pérez’s lyrical, cross-cultural coming-of-age debut novel explores a young girl’s childhood between 1950s Puerto Rico and a small Massachusetts factory town.
Andrea Rodríguez is nine years old when her mother whisks her and her brother, Pablo, away from Woronoco, the tiny Massachusetts factory town that is the only home they’ve known. With no plan and no money, she leaves them with family in the mountainside villages of Puerto Rico and promises to return.
Months later, when Andrea and Pablo are brought back to Massachusetts, they find their hometown significantly changed. As they navigate the rifts between their family’s values and all-American culture and face the harsh realities of growing up, they must embrace both the triumphs and heartache that mark the journey to adulthood.
A heartfelt, evocative portrait of another side of life in 1950s America, The Things We Didn’t Know establishes Elba Iris Pérez as a sensational new literary voice.
From a new voice in fiction, the inaugural winner of Simon & Schuster’s Books Like Us contest, Elba Iris Pérez’s THE THINGS WE DIDN'T KNOW —follows a young girl's journey from childhood between the 1950's Puerto Rico and a small Massachusetts factory town through the 1960s, in this gripping coming coming-of-age cross-cultural debut novel.
It has been four years since the father, Luis Jose Rodriguez, brought the family from Puerto Rico to Massachusetts to the remote tiny town of Woronoco, a factory town.
He had come to New Jersey originally as a season farmworker, leaving Puerto Rico until he had a home for them. When the farming season ended, he accepted an invitation from an acquaintance for a job in Strathmore and saved money for a place to live and a car. There was not much around except a paper mill—Woronoco was its own little world.
Upon arrival, the mother complained about the town being isolated. There were no stores, restaurants, or public transportation. She wanted to return to Puerto Rico. She made their lives pretty miserable.
In 1959, Andrea Rodríguez was nine years old and their brother Pablo seven when her mother, Raquel, a housewife, whisks her and her brother away from Woronoco, the tiny Massachusetts factory town— the only home they’ve known after she felt trapped. Before this, the mother had attempted to nearly drive her husband’s car off a cliff since she did not know how to drive.
With no plan and no money, she leaves them with family they have never met in the mountainside villages of Puerto Rico and promises to return.
After they arrive on the island, Cecilia, aka Titi Machi, Raquel’s sister, welcomes them on her farm near Caguas, which helps the kids experience summertime in the countryside and get enrolled in school.
The mother is not committed to them and spends more time elsewhere doing her own thing with friends. Then, the mother returns and wants to take them to another poorer sister's house to collect child support. All the while, they tolerated an absent mother.
Almost a year later, Luis comes to get them to go back to Massachusetts. Andrea is forced to stay with an abusive aunt. Everything had changed. They now have to adjust to the different cultures and do not feel like they belong in either.
Caught between two worlds, Andrea, born in Puerto Rico, struggles to find her place in 1950s and 1960s America.
From family problems in Puerto Rico to Massachusetts, Andrea must weather the storms while finding themselves, dealing with betrayals, cruelties, race, culture, racism, family strife, and personality identity from childhood to adulthood.
Andreas goes to school, marries, and ultimately finds happiness. However, Pablo has suffered and struggles with his identity.
Heartfelt and emotional, we see both sides of life in the 1950s and family bonds. I enjoyed the childhood stories, and you felt for the children being torn and not knowing where or how to fit in, especially in their teen years.
The author skillfully portrays the contrasting environments of Puerto Rico and Massachusetts and its impact on the children. Whereas Puerto Rico had lush mountain villages, Massachusetts was a small industrial town.
Beautiful storytelling, absorbing and immersive, THE THINGS WE DIDN'T KNOW is heartbreaking and thought-provoking. The author expertly explores the family drama, self-discovery, identities, beliefs, history, traditions, belonging, cultural differences, and gender—a blend of coming-of-age, historical fiction, and literary.
I look forward to reading more by this newfound author.
Thanks to Gallery Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an early review copy.
@JudithDCollins | #JDCMustReadBooks
My Rating: 4 Stars
Pub Date: Feb 6, 2024
"A coming-of-age tale that beautifully evokes the contrasting environments of Puerto Rico and Massachusetts."
"Perez proves to be a natural storyteller."
"A sparkling, vivacious portrait of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora, The Things We Didn’t Know is peopled with inimitable, larger-than-life characters. The novel is strongest in its evocation of childhood, when Andrea’s brilliant powers of observation and her capacity for joy and love render the novel’s atmosphere the most compelling."
—Historical Novel Society
“Selected from hundreds of novel submissions, Elba Iris Pérez’s beautiful, heartfelt debut, The Things We Didn’t Know, is the first-ever winner of Simon & Schuster’s Books Like Us Contest. This stood out immediately as an unfeigned coming-of-age story, taking us from the lushly drawn mountain villages of Puerto Rico to industrial small-town Massachusetts. In this semi-autobiographical novel, Pérez has brought to life a refreshingly different 1950s American family. We are swept into the lives of Andrea and her brother, Pablo, as they grapple with an absent mother and navigate two cultures, painful familial uncertainties, and the quest for identity and belonging.”
—Amara H., Senior Editor, on The Things We Didn’t Know
"Elba Iris Pérez’s debut novel, The Things We Didn’t Know, breathes with narrative magic ... Andrea's coming-of-age as she searches for a stable sense of family will resonate with readers as if it were their own reality."
—Harry Youtt, poet and author of I'm Never Not Thinking of You
"The Things We Didn't Know will sweep you up from Massachusetts to Puerto Rico and back again in a whirlwind of unfamiliar cultures, betrayals, cruelties, and loves. Elba Iris Pérez delivers a wonderfully compelling read."
—Judith Simon Prager, co-author of The Worst Is Over and author of What the Dolphin Said
“Elba Iris Pérez gifts us with rich and powerful storytelling, the triumphant intelligence of the heart.”
—Elidio La Torre Lagares
“The Things We Didn’t Know, Elba Iris Pérez’s debut novel, flows along two rivers: one in Woronoco, which means ‘the winding river,’ and the other in Aguas Buenas, or the ‘untainted waters’ of Puerto Rico. As Andrea moves from a working-class, all-American town to the great disparities of American colonization and back, she must tame even wilder waters, coming to terms with self, race, and personal identity in the shadow of history.”
—Elidio La Torre Lagares, author of Wonderful Wasteland and other natural disasters
About the Author
Photo Credit: Cristie Reddehase
I'm a Puerto Rican author and the inaugural winner of Simon & Schuster's Books Like Us contest. My novel, THE THINGS WE DIDN'T KNOW represents life across diverse cultures of 1950s America. I also love spending time with my family more than anything else in the world and I'm a great cook. WEBSITE