The novel We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh gives a voice to the desperate and marginalized, depicting faulty characters some of whom are innocent victims of circumstance.
In the afterward, author Vanessa Diffenbaugh confides that this was a hard story to write following the success of her 1st novel The Language of Flowers. I found it a hard book to read. I began by listening to the audiobook version but switched over to the book near the last few chapters. The two main characters are flawed and at times the story simply didn’t seem plausible; I had to keep reminding myself what I knew of their situation to help make sense of their actions.
Diffenbaugh is a wife and mother of four and is also an advocate for foster children. She sits on the board of Youth Villages, a non-profit that seeks to improve outcomes for America’s most vulnerable children and families.
After reading this I realized I may have been too quick to judge. Diffenbaugh is not typing away in a cozy cabin, she is a busy mom involved in her community. My perception of her was altered to one of respect.
We Never Asked for Wings is a contemporary story set in the Bay area. Letty is a single mother of Hispanic descent born in the United States. She is co-dependent on her parents, illegals who have raised her two children while she works as a bartender to support the family. When Letty discovers a note from her mother stating she has left to join her husband who returned to his native Mexico 6 weeks earlier, Letty adds her name to the note, abandoning her 15-year-old son Alex and 6-year-old daughter Luna.
Catching up with her mother at a bus station, Letty lies to her mother about her children’s safety and the two continue across the border to her parent’s home. Eventually Letty’s mother discovers the truth and sends Letty back to San Francisco to take responsibility for her two children.
Alex is smart, responsible, and reliable, but he is still a kid. When he finds out his mother has left he is angry, but he does not neglect to care for his younger sister while his mother is gone. Yesenia is an illegal immigrant and a classmate of Alex. The two develop a friendship which leads to first love. When Alex moves to a better school in a better neighborhood, he is unable to protect Yesenia from school bullies. In an attempt to rescue her, Alex takes advantage of a good teacher’s trust by breaking into the school database and enrolling Yesenia into Mission Hills School. Alex not only compromises his education, but creates a much greater problem for Yesenia.
Letty works hard to become a parent to her two children, but at age 32 she manages to make some pretty stupid mistakes. She insists on keeping the identity of her son’s father from him, but Alex’s persistence and curiosity win out.
The story is set in a nearby marsh at the end of the San Francisco Airport runway where there are colonies of migrating birds. The setting is both beautiful and disturbing, juxtaposing the frailty of the birds against the jumbo jets. Both are free to take flight, unlike the human lives portrayed in Diffenbaugh’s story.
While this was not one of my most favorite reads of 2015, I’m glad I stuck with it because it has given me a measure of insight into the lives of people who have fled their own country in hopes of a better life, only to face more hardship. I realize each life is unique and that there are all sorts of variables, but in this particular story I found myself empathizing with Yesenia and her mother who had fled Mexico because of severe abuse and the need for medical help.