Common Reader Review
by Sidney Watson
2014 Convention Chair
We hit and we kept on hitting; we were allowed to be what we were, frightened and vengeful—little animals, clawing at what we needed.
Justin Torres's We the Animals begins his story of three brothers when his narrator is six years old, and much of the book focuses on those wonder-filled years of childhood. That these brothers live those years in poverty, with a sometimes-absent, often violent father and an overwhelmed mother, in no way diminishes the magic of these years. In fact, the novel's greatest strength is in the way this family's struggles reveal the mystery at the heart of all family relationships and explores the way they can careen between almost unbearable moments of love and equally unbearable moments of psychological pain. In some ways, We the Animals seems to suggest we have all been "little animals, clawing at what we needed."
The central figures of this young boy's life are, of course, his parents. Paps is an imposing physical presence, whose strength and quick anger signal both protection and danger to these boys. As the narrator matures, he begins to recognize that his father's anger is born out of his frustration and sense of failure. Paps and Ma married when he was 16 and she was 14, and their mixed marriage (he's Puerto Rican and Ma is Anglo) seems to isolate them and their children from their white working-class neighbors in Upstate New York. Ma works the graveyard shift and often seems a little addled by her circumstances. She loves her children with the ferocity of an animal, but this abused wife also dreads the maturing of these young boys into a manhood she equates with violence.
Yet that description belies the moments of joy and closeness within this family, of Paps teaching the boys (his "mutts") to dance like true Puerto Ricans or swimming out to the center of a lake, with his wife and youngest son clinging to his broad back. Wearily walking in to find her boys covered in tomato juice, instead of erupting in anger Ma is reminded of their births and joins the fun, asking them, "Make me born." The two older brothers, Manny and Joel, often seem to be the wild animals described by the title, but they also are capable of surprises. After flying kites, Manny considers his own sense of entrapment and observes, "What we gotta do is, we gotta figure out a way to reverse gravity, so that we all fall upward, through the clouds and sky, all the way to heaven...."
Torres chooses to tell this family's story through very short episodes that are connected thematically as well as through imagery. This structure makes We the Animals an excellent choice for the Common Reader. It is short—compact enough to be read in a single sitting. Also, since the chapters are so brief and relatively self-contained, one or more could be read aloud at a gathering. While the subject matter and language are mature, Sigma Tau Deltans can easily choose chapters that are most appropriate for their local audiences. It's a book that touches on so many themes--domestic violence, gender and sexuality, sexuality and violence, ethnicity—that it is certain to prompt lively chapter discussions.
Justin Torres is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is now a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Glimmer Train, and other publications, and he is the winner of the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award. We the Animals was nominated for the NAACP Image Awards and the 2011 Indies Choice Book Award.