Camp ToB 2019

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Week Six: Lost Children Archive

This week, we wrap up Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, and we have so much to talk about.

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: There’s a lot to talk about this week—but first I want to address everyone’s concerns about what happened to the air conditioning in the cabins. Due to some admittedly convincing evidence that the bitcoin mining operation beneath the commissary was solely responsible for recent power outages in Manhattan, our electricity usage has been throttled. Stay strong: We’ll get through this heat wave/bear market together!

OK, back to the books. In the second half of Lost Children Archive, the narration switches from the mother (who we know as Ma) to her 10-year-old son, in what reads as a message for his five-year-old sister, so she has a document of the road trip they’ve been on together. Then, inspired by Elegies for Lost Children, the novel about refugee children crossing the border that Ma’s been reading to him, the son persuades his sister to leave with him and try to locate Manuela’s lost daughters—without Ma and Pa’s knowledge, though he doesn’t tell his sister that. They soon become lost, and are hoping to make their way to Echo Canyon, where the family had previously said they would meet up if they ever became separated. The children finally do make their way there, where they’re reunited with Ma and Pa. Together, the family reaches their final destination, and as planned, split up, with Pa and the son staying and Ma and the daughter leaving for New York.

Now let’s head into it. Our Camp ToB Activity Leader this week is Elizabeth Arnold. Elizabeth, please introduce yourself to the campers!

Elizabeth Arnold: I live in New Jersey farm country with my husband, daughter, and cat Porsche, across from two horse farms and down the street from a vineyard. (I’ve been here long enough that I take it for granted, but sometimes I’ll look up and think, HORSES!) It really is a perfect place to live. I’m the author of four novels, the most recent of which, The Book of Secrets, is an ode to classic literature, everything from Poe to childhood favorites like Narnia and Anne of Green Gables. So I’m passionate about books. If I’m not reading or writing I’m listening while cooking or shopping or waiting for the microwave to ding. (Even in the bathroom, because why waste time?)

I read mostly litfic, and over the past couple of years I’ve become more and more drawn to speculative and experimental fiction, books that reshape the way we connect to a story. I discovered ToB in 2013, when I’d just read The Orphan Master’s Son, and felt conflicted and wanted to see how reviewers felt about it. And in the process I discovered the long list and was instantly hooked but overwhelmed because I knew what it would do to my TBR pile. It’s been messing with that pile ever since.

Andrew: It’s great to have you with us. Now, let’s jump into the second half of Lost Children Archive. What did you think about the shift in perspective to the son? Did it work for you?

Elizabeth: You know, at first I was annoyed by it. I was loving the mother’s voice and deep insights (even though I didn’t like her much as a person). And when the voice changed to something more prosaic, I immediately lost interest. The cadence sounded so much like an adult trying to talk like a child, which always annoys me. I have a daughter almost the boy’s age and I’m very familiar with how young children think and speak. His understanding of the world and their situation was much too precocious; bright children are articulate, sure, but it takes years of experience with the world to have an adult’s wisdom and deep sense of metaphor. This section felt painfully cute-ified, but not simplified enough.

So I kind of sped through the first pages, trying to get back into the mother’s head. And it kept going and going, and I skipped ahead many pages and saw we were still stuck in his voice, and I thought, damn. But, you know, I was going to have to discuss this section, so I resigned myself to it.

Andrew: This right here is precisely what was driving me batty at the beginning of the second half. It kept tripping me up—again and again—that this is not what a 10-year-old sounds like. Also, he’s relating dialogue? So it’s in the voice of a 10-year-old, but it’s also apparently written. I felt like I’d lost all my bearings, like the sheer realism—sometimes awful, sometimes humdrum—of the first half had all of a sudden been dashed.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. But here’s my take: As I read on I started to realize this story probably wasn’t meant to be realistic. The idea of these young children escaping without notice and traveling for miles on foot, and then atop a train, their stories intertwining and finally merging with the children they were trying to find, I think it was meant to be more mythology than realism. And once I realized that, I stopped caring that none of the characters felt real. I mean, they weren’t given names, they weren’t fully formed, they’re kept at a sort of mythological distance; they weren’t supposed to feel real. And I just was swept away inside it, the way you’re swept into a fairy tale, without questioning.

Andrew: I hadn’t picked up on this at all when I was reading it, but now that you’re saying it I think you’re absolutely right. And the only names we do get for them, in the first half of the book, aren’t even their real names, when they talk about what their Apache names might be: The son becomes Swift Feather, Ma is Lucky Arrow, Pa gets Papa Chochise. And the daughter breaks the rules of the game and chooses Memphis. And we of course need those names—Swift Feather and Memphis throughout the second half.

Elizabeth: Yes, and when they meet up with the lost children, who were also nameless, the children are also given warrior names. Having nameless characters made me think of how refugees are usually depersonalized. When we think of them, even when sympathetic media discusses them, they are a they, a caravan, nameless bodies packed in a cage. Here treating the names of the protagonists and the lost children in the same way felt very equalizing.


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: How about the way the novel-within-a-novel, Elegies for Lost Children, fits in here? The way the fantasy and reality of the two stories begin to intermingle?

Elizabeth: I was fascinated by how the Elegies were incorporated. It’s like the novel becomes its own “archive.” Other stories/canons are nested inside the Elegies along with the Polaroids Swift Feather has been taking during their trip. And the desperate travel of the Elegies is nested inside the family’s road trip, the children reenacting the story as they read it. And then it intermingles even more closely, Swift Feather and Memphis begin their own desperate travel, their journey on foot and train echoing the lost children’s, the two stories growing more and more similar as the Elegies story interweaves more urgently and frequently with Swift Feather’s, until they finally collide and become one, back and forth within a single sentence.

OK, now I’m probably going to take this too far, but could it be that Swift Feather and Memphis’s journey might all have been in their imagination? Ma says at the end of her section that she’s realized her children understand the story she wants to tell much better than she can, are better able to convey it, “…his mind had arranged all the chaos around us into a world.” That made no sense to me, because of course in their privileged lives, with no experience of brutality, they can’t possibly understand what these children are going through except in their imagination (just like we can’t fully conceptualize it, but get closer when we enter that world by reading). But then she asks him, “What else do you see?” and hands over the mic for him to tell their version.

So what if that version is just part of their backseat reenactment of the horrors they’re reading? Swift Feather’s way of absorbing and understanding the plight of lost children by imagining he’s living it, and recounting that imagined story? I mean, the section is titled “Reenactment,” so is that literal? Reenacting the intense heat and thirst and fear they’re reading about, complete with a train ride and becoming completely lost themselves. At the end of the book, Swift Feather says Memphis will someday forget this story, that he’s recording it to help her remember, so could it all be his own imagination?

OK, I’d have to reread to see if this makes any sense, but it’s fun to contemplate, and it might help explain how the fantasy of the second half fits into the realism of the first. I’m thinking too about the section where the eagles are following them and providing food, which had me scratching my head. It’s like the stories my daughter comes up with: “They were starving and about to die, but then! Out of nowhere a dragon came to bring them breakfast!” That had to come from the mind of a child, no? Or were the eagles supposed to be some kind of metaphor? How did you read this?

Andrew: This is a really interesting angle. Is the second half fiction? Is it misremembered? Is it a hallucination? I’m not sure, but I think you’ve brought up a point that requires further discussion in the comments. (Commentariat: You know what to do!)

What about the end? What did you expect would happen to Swift Feather, Memphis, and the other children they finally encounter?

Elizabeth: I knew they would probably be found in Echo Canyon, and…because of the status of our border situation, I knew the book wouldn’t give us a happy ending. At least one of the sisters would die. If I’d had to guess, I would have guessed the younger sister would die, and that the older sister would be found guarding her body or trying to carry it to safety (which I actually think might have been even more tragic.)

I did wonder whether the family would end up staying together at the end, whether losing the children would make the parents realize there were more important things than whatever was separating them, blah, blah, blah, trope. I guess I’m glad she didn’t sink to that melodramatic violin music sort of ending, but for Swift Feather and Memphis’s sake I’m hoping they somehow find each other again.

Andrew: I was wondering the same thing. I was so on edge throughout the ending, and was convinced the parents would stay together—maybe I thought that as a way to counter my stress?—and I was ultimately happy the story didn’t give us that. That detail actually sealed my feelings about the book, and I feel like any book that doesn’t give me what I want or expect ends up as one I’ll remember and recommend. What about you? Are there any indicators you find in other books that always push a story from good to great, in your opinion?

Elizabeth: Books need a twist to be fully satisfying, right? Something you don’t see coming, but that pulls everything together and feels inevitable. I like books that expand as you dig deeper, like Murakami’s works, and David Mitchell’s, where themes appear subtly, explored in different ways throughout so you get the Aha! feeling of revelation whenever you notice them. I see that in Lost Children Archive as well. And I love books like this that twist to reach a melancholy, uneasy sort of peace, it adds a layer of richness and complexity. Gosh, I think I’m realizing for the first time that I hate happy endings. (Now I’m wondering what that says about my personality. I probably don’t want to know.)

Andrew: Boo to happy endings! Definitely.

Elizabeth: Haha, unromantics unite! But most literary fiction doesn’t end completely happily, which makes it more beautiful in its messiness. The first book that’s coming to mind that twists to an unsettled, unexpected end is Red Clocks; reading it I was sure The Biographer (who desperately wanted a child) was going to end up with the pregnant daughter’s unwanted baby, and it made me vaguely annoyed all the way through. How unfair is it that I liked the book less while I was reading because of how I assumed it would end? When this didn’t actually happen, and reached that melancholy, uneasy peace, the novel rose ten notches in my mind. Last year’s Rooster winner My Sister the Serial Killer is another example of an uneasy, unexpected ending. I was sure throughout that Korede would turn on her sister and Ayoola would be stopped. The haunting perfection of the actual ending made it one of my favorite reads of the season.

Andrew: I’m curious to know what the happy-versus-good-ending ratio is for all our Rooster winners. This may come up in next year’s Rooster of Roosters. (We’re actually doing this.)

Elizabeth: I can’t tell you how excited I am for that! I’ve already started rereading my favorites. (So far, no happy endings.)

Andrew: So let’s talk about the “Echo Canyon” section. As I mentioned last week, I listened to the audio for this one, and this section was perhaps one of the best audio renditions in a book I’ve heard. Throughout the section, the narration cross-faded between Swift Feather and Ma (voiced by Luiselli), and the result was disorienting, which I thought worked well for the section. What did you think of that section, in particular?

Elizabeth: That section was so powerful, wasn’t it? I wish I could hear the audio, I’m imagining the overlapping voices almost like music, like their own soundscape. (Hearing your description it occurred to me that the layering and cross-fading of voice over voice is like a series of echoes, just like the whole structure of the book is a series of echoes.)

Andrew: Oh nice! I hadn’t thought that while listening, but I think you’re right about that.

Elizabeth: On paper, we get this multipage wall of text with no paragraph or sentence breaks, switching from person to person mid-thought… At first I stared blankly at it, then flipped page after page, and I thought, oh, crap. But then I started to read, trying to follow these converging lines—it was like being spun in a blender but I got caught up in the dizziness and I couldn’t get out. And even though I normally would have felt completely manipulated by an author ramping up tension with run-ons, I still read it the way I think it was intended to be read, in one long, desperate inhale. By the end, where we learn the two sisters are dead, thinking about the hope of all those children with phone numbers stitched into their collars, I was in tears. It all left me breathless and hopeless, which, you know, is the way I’ve felt for the past two and a half years. (If I had magical powers, I’d buy this book for every senator and “build the wall” chanter, strap them into a chair, and force them to read.)

Andrew: I know I gasped. I can’t remember, but I may have been holding my breath for the entire section.

Now that we’ve finished Lost Children Archive, what do you think of the role of a documentarian versus the role of a documentarist?

Elizabeth: I thought the whole concept of the different ways we can present truth was so fascinating, deciding what to include and how, as well as what to leave out—which, of course, is what must be done in storytelling; it’s something I struggle with every day, trying to figure out the most powerful way to deliver my own truth to readers. I think the point made here, as the boy comes to understand, is that both the “documentarist” and “documentarian” ways of presenting truth are equally powerful and necessary, and each enriches the other. We read news stories, and they’re heartbreaking, but it’s not till we see the photo of a drowned father with his drowned baby, or hear children crying out desperately for their parents, that the horror fully stabs at us. It becomes real.

For me, one of the most painful sections of the book was the map with dots marking locations of children’s remains, along with the mortality reports. The first report was for a nine-year-old girl who’d died from exposure. My daughter is nine. I had to sit with that page, absorbing it, and then leave the book for a while. And then, you know, I came back and slowly read and pictured and felt the reports for all those children, and tried to imagine thousands more. Ma says a documentarist doesn’t take the time to go past questions, but of course we do that ourselves when we look at the pieces; a Polaroid can be powerful on its own. And with the surrounding story, it all becomes so much bigger than its components. Those reports just had a few simple words, just snapshots on their own, but because of the “documentarian” Elegies for Lost Children there was a whole other dimension underneath them. And in turn the Elegies story was made even more intense by the stark reality of those pages.

Andrew: It’s a reality that feels unreal, which is certainly our current state of things. We may be done with Lost Children Archive, but it isn’t done with us.

Next week we’re on to our second book for July, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. To wrap up today, I’d like to thank Elizabeth for joining us this week, as well as share the song I played immediately after finishing the book:


The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar


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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