Camp ToB 2019

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Week Five: Lost Children Archive

It’s a new month and a new matchup. This week, we’re discussing the first half of Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive.

Welcome to Camp ToB 2019, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books! All summer long, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2019—two books per month, two weeks per book—that you chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel, then meet here on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress through each book. At the end of each month you decide which of the two books we just read advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you make the ultimate call on which of our three finalists wins an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.

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Andrew Womack: And we’re back! We were off last week for the Fourth of July as well as our initial arbitration hearing with former Archery Instructor Doug. If you have any well wishes to send along to Doug, please pass them through legal (next to the commissary).

Now, onward to our July matchup, in which we’ll be discussing Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli and Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. This week we’ll take on the first half of Lost Children Archive, where we’re on a road trip from New York to Arizona with our family of protagonists: a boy and a girl, who are unnamed, and their parents, referred to as Pa and Ma, who are both audio documentary producers. For her next project, Ma wants to record the stories of refugee children and their immigration hearings in New York, while Pa, she learns, has secured a grant to record a sound documentary in the Southwest about Geronimo and the last Apaches. Ma decides it’s a natural fit for her own work, so they decide to drive to Arizona so Pa can start on his project, and for a vacation of sorts.

Much has loomed large on the ride so far, including news of the immigration crisis along the US-Mexico border; the parents’ marital difficulties and planned separation after they reach their destination; and two girls who went missing while crossing the border—their mother, Manuela, who has a younger daughter in the same class as Ma’s daughter, asked Ma to look for them when the family reaches New Mexico or Arizona.

Now, let’s meet this week’s Activity Leader, Allison McCollum. Allison: Please introduce yourself to the campers!

Allison McCollum: Hi! I’m Allison and I live in a lovely small city in eastern North Carolina. I’ve been following along with the ToB for a few years, and like to comment when I have time, though I will admit I was woefully unprepared this past year, and had only read two or three of the books in the Tournament. I’m a zoning and floodplain administrator for a small town that was recently hit pretty hard by Florence, and when I’m not doing that I’m probably shuttling my 14-year-old girl or my three-year-old boy somewhere.

Andrew: And since you have children, have you read The Book With No Pictures—which makes an appearance in Lost Children Archive—with them? It’s a frequent read in my house, for sure.

Allison: Oh yes, I am very familiar with The Book With No Pictures! There was a brief phase when my son called everyone and everything Boo Boo Butt, because of that book.

Andrew: Hahha, yes I can relate. What about you, what do you like to read?

Allison: I read mostly fiction, and tend to gravitate toward speculative fiction and mystery. I love a good, weird book.

Andrew: I love a good, weird book too. So far, would you say Lost Children Archive qualifies?

Allison: It’s approaching weird, but not quite there. I think the backdrop of immigration and child refugees make it too steeped in our present reality to really make it feel particularly weird. Now, if there turns out to be a menacing grue stalking our family in the second half of the book I’ll have to reevaluate my position.


Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

A mother and father set out with their two children, driving from New York to Arizona in the heat of summer. On the radio, there is news about an “immigration crisis”: thousands of kids trying to cross the southwestern border into the United States, but getting detained—or lost in the desert along the way. As the family drives, we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can almost feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, harrowing adventure—both in the desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)

Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.


Andrew: The first thing I imagine many people reading this book will notice, right from the start, is the format. Narrated by Ma, we have these short, often single-page bursts of thought, some entirely personal and internal, some conveying the action in the story. Some about the present, some about the past. I found it all totally effective and made these characters feel extra real and human. All in all, the style definitely sucked me in. What did you think of that, and did it work for you throughout the first half of the book?

Allison: I found it super effective for me. It really lent a sense of urgency to the book and in a way reminded me of road trips I’ve taken both as a kid and as an adult—riding along, dozing off for a few minutes or hours, waking up in a totally different place. I read pretty quickly, so short little “chapters” made the book feel fast-paced and gave me the sense of progress or movement.

Andrew: Road trip as reading experience is a perfect analogy for this book, definitely.

I started Lost Children Archive with the audio, and then realized the book was really more of a multimedia experience, as there are photos in the printed version. But the recording is fairly unique among audiobooks, in that it’s produced with some sound effects as well as multiple narrators, though so far it’s mostly been Luiselli—who is excellent as Ma.  Anyway, the brevity of those sections in audio is highly effective as well. I really like it. Plus, I get to drive while listening to an audiobook of a family driving while listening to an audiobook.

Allison: I’ve never been able to make the jump to audiobooks for some reason. Mostly I think it’s a time issue—I can read a book much faster that I can have it read to me. And since my daily commute is only 10 minutes, it’s much more suited to music or podcasts. But I do like the idea of listening to a road trip novel while driving. And I imagine shorter chapters meant you had fewer of those moments where you were sitting in your parked car at your destination just waiting to get to a good stopping point!

Andrew: Greedy reader that I am, I’ll sit in the parking lot and try and sneak in an extra section, whenever time permits.

Every so often in the book we get these brief sections, “Box I,” “Box II,” etc., listing the contents of what I’m assuming are the storage boxes they placed in the car trunk when they first hit the road. On the audio, those sections are read by a second voice, a man who sounds like some kind of official. That feels like it might be some kind of giveaway as to why we have these lists, but I’m not sure. Do you have any guesses so far?

Allison: I assumed that the box contents were the boxes in the trunk, and that’s interesting to know that they are read by a different voice in the audio book. I’m reading it in hardback, and honestly I just thought it was a vague way to break up sections of the book. Maybe I should go back and reread them—there may be a deeper meaning there!

Andrew: It’s actually put me on edge. I’m really worried about what’s going to happen to the family here. To me, those box sections feel very Blair Witch Project, like someone is finding their belongings after something horrible has happened. The first half of this book is making me incredibly nervous.

Allison: The book is making me nervous for a different reason. I’m big on plans and itineraries. Also GPS! When we took our daughter to Disney a few years ago, I had an entire trip folder and a daily itinerary. We drove, so I had even pre-planned our stops and tried to seek out the best local joint to eat at when we stopped for meals. Spontaneity, who is she?

So the fact that their itinerary is so vague and meandering. Hotels are randomly selected, stays are extended, side-trips are made… it is completely at odds with my experience. Particularly traveling with kids!

Andrew: I know! Use the GPS! I like that she gives a backstory for not using it, but I mean, I felt like it was like Chekov’s gun. How are we going to get lost (as the book’s title presupposes) if we don’t first remove Google Maps?

At the end of Part I, our rest stop for this week, we leave the family at the air strip, where they’ve just watched the plane with the refugee children take off, which was just a raw, frightening moment. What are your thoughts about that, and what do you think happens from here on out?

Allison: I thought it was particularly affecting when the mother starts having the boy describe what he is seeing. I haven’t read ahead, but I do know that the second half of the book is from the boy’s point-of-view, so I am interested to read his take on this strange road trip they’re on and what his insights are on his parents’ relationship. I don’t know if there will be a happy ending for our family here, but I’d love to get some closure on Manuela’s daughters and their situation.

Andrew: That’s a great point about the shift in perspective. I loved that too. And of course, point of view feels like a big theme in our first half. What’s your take on the “documentarian” versus “documentarist” debate that’s come up a couple of times? Where Ma calls herself a “documentarist” and Pa says he’s a “documentarian?”

Allison: Prior to reading this book I would have thought the words basically interchangeable. Now I can discern a subtle difference, though I still think they would be mostly interchangeable in regular conversation. I see a “documentarian” as a librarian—assembling an archive, classifying items, indexing materials. A “documentarist” is one who takes an archive of materials and shapes them into a narrative. It seems as if Pa is trying to elevate what he does in making the distinction between the two terms, as if there is no art or real skill to the work Ma does.

Andrew: Flipping through the book I saw in the acknowledgements that Luiselli says she started writing the book in 2014, which surprised me. With refugee children from Central America such an important part of the news today, this feels like it was written, really, just in the past few months. Did this first part of the story feel to you like it was talking about the here and now, even if it wasn’t, exactly?

Allison: Yes, the book feels sadly, incredibly topical regarding the refugee children. I suppose it doesn’t surprise me that it still feels topical; I wish it did.

Andrew: In places, I felt like the book was more powerful given current circumstances, especially this:

What does “refugee” mean, Mama? the girl asks from the backseat.

I look for possible answers to give her. I suppose that someone who is fleeing is still not a refugee. A refugee is someone who has already arrived somewhere, in a foreign land, but must wait for an indefinite time before actually, fully having arrived. Refugees wait in detention centers, shelters, or camps; in federal custody and under the gaze of armed officials. They wait in long lines for lunch, for a bed to sleep in, wait with their hands raised to ask if they can use the bathroom. They wait to be let out, wait for a telephone call, for someone to claim or pick them up. And then there are refugees who are lucky enough to be finally reunited with their families, living in a new home. But even those still wait. They wait for the court’s notice to appear, for a court ruling, for either deportation or asylum, wait to know where they will end up living and under what conditions. They wait for a school to admit them, for a job opening, for a doctor to see them. They wait for visas, documents, permission. They wait for a cue, for instructions, and then wait some more. They wait for their dignity to be restored.

What does it mean to be a refugee? I suppose I could tell the girl: A child refugee is someone who waits.

I had to stop listening right then, just to think a little longer about that.

Allison: I don’t watch the news much these days—I have the privilege of being in a position to ignore it when I want to—but the recent reports of the deplorable conditions that hundreds of refugees and immigrants are in have been piercing my bubble. It’s shameful and heartbreaking and infuriating all at the same time. It’s so understandable that Ma is so focused on helping reunite Manuel and her daughters. That need to do something, anything, even if you only end up making things slightly better for one or two people is very relatable right now.

As an only marginally related aside, I studied linguistics in college and so I got heavily sidetracked on page 16 when the mother meets Manuela and learns that she speaks Trique. I put the book down and went on a deep-dive through Wikipedia, YouTube, and through the Linguist List reading all about Trique. Only about 26,000 native speakers today!

Andrew: That’s fascinating. What do you think is the meaning for making her speak Trique? What do you think should we be getting from that?

Allison: I think it just adds to that sense of loss and the idea of the importance of archiving and recording things. So many languages are endangered and it takes real effort to maintain a living language. Manuela didn’t bother teaching her son Trique, an indigenous language to Mexico, and Ma’s grandmother, who was Hñähñú, one of Mexico’s indigenous people, and spoke Otomí, didn’t teach the language to her daughter, who subsequently didn’t teach it to Ma. Of course, if you’re removed from a community that speaks the language (and evolves the language), you don’t have anyone to speak it to, and it just becomes an academic exercise. Recording and preserving these endangered and dying languages is so valuable both to add to our academic understanding of language and to get a real sense of how people and communities communicated.

But on a more sentimental note, documenting these things can help us to feel as if they will never truly be lost. It feels like that is definitely what is driving Ma (and probably Pa, too, though it’s harder to say), that need to save something, if only for a little bit longer. She’s holding on to the marriage and the family unit, even though she’s almost certain it won’t last. But by recording and preserving this trip it adds to the family archive of stories and moments and captures something that can be kept and shared with future generations. She definitely fits my definition of documentarist, no matter what Pa says.

Andrew: Very well put, and something I think we should keep in mind next week, when we wrap up the rest of Lost Children Archive. Thank you for joining us, Allison. Campers: Let us know what you thought of the book’s first half in the comments below!


The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar

  • June 5: Bowlaway through page 172
  • June 12: Bowlaway to the end
  • June 19: Daisy Jones & the Six through page 151 (finish “The Numbers Tour” section)
  • June 26: Daisy Jones & the Six to the end
  • July 3: VACATION
  • July 10: Lost Children Archive through page 186 (finish part 1, or chapter 11 on audio)
  • July 17: Lost Children Archive to the end
  • July 24: Trust Exercise through page 131 (finish part 1, or chapter 5 on audio)
  • July 31: Trust Exercise to the end
  • Aug. 7: American Spy through page 141 (finish chapter 12)
  • Aug. 14: American Spy to the end
  • Aug. 21: Black Leopard, Red Wolf through page 243 (finish chapter 2)
  • Aug. 28: Black Leopard, Red Wolf to the end
  • Sept. 4: Announce summer champion

The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s most recent book is Everything Now, winner of the 2022 California Book Award. For his other books, try More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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