Note: trigger warning for sexual assault.
Camino lives for her father’s visits to the Dominican Republic. But this year, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people.
In New York, Yahaira is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.
Separated by distance – and Papi’s secrets – the two sisters are forced to face a new reality in which their lives are forever altered. Now Camino and Yahaira are both left to grapple with their grief, their new-found love for one another and what it will take to keep their dreams alive.
15 September – 15 October is Latinx Heritage Month, a 30-day celebration of the culture and contributions of Latinx, Hispanic and Latin-identifying people around the world. Here in the book community, we celebrate by reading, and seeing my WordPress and Instagram feeds fill with recommendations of authors familiar and new to me has been wonderful. That said, as has been noted by many Latinx bloggers and bookstagrammers (I really recommend this article in particular from @lupita.reads on Insta), a lot of the people currently reading and posting about these authors do not mention them at all the rest of the year. That is not okay. We should be reading and recommending a racially diverse selection of authors all year round. So this post is part screaming about a book I loved and part a call for accountability, from myself and everyone celebrating Latinx Heritage Month who is not part of the community (especially my fellow white folks) – this is a whole-life thing, not a everybody’s-doing-it-so-I-guess-I’ll-performatively-join-in thing.
Now for my review.
Clap When You Land is a heart-rending novel about grief, lies, family and forgiveness. Written in verse and divided between the perspectives of Camino, who lives in the Dominican Republic, and Yahaira, who lives in New York, it tells the story of two sisters separated all their lives by the shame of their father learning of each others’ existence for the first time, while dealing with his sudden and devastating loss. He had two wives and two daughters in two countries, and neither of those daughters found out about it until he could no longer give them any answers.
How you deal with that is a question Elizabeth Acevedo answers with deep empathy – for everyone involved – complexity and breathtaking understanding of all of the big and small ways broken people navigate a world where their foundations have turned shakey.
There is so much in this book it’s hard to know where to start.
What is most immediately, unavoidably striking is the stark differences in Camino and Yahaira’s daily lives. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic, and though she and her aunt Tía live in relative comfort because of the money Camino’s father sends from America, the rest of her neighbourhood is another story. Poverty is rife, and the healthcare system too expensive for most people to access. Tía is a healer and Camino is her assistant, so she witnesses first hand those in her community suffering – from the woman dying of cancer to her best friend Carline, young and pregnant with no pre-natal care available to her. Camino wants nothing more than to escape to America to go to university, but there are endless obstacles. When Camino tells her father she wants to be a doctor in America, he laughs at her.
Yahaira’s life in New York is much more familiar – at least to this reader – but no less deeply felt. Half closeted but utterly in love with her girlfriend, Dre, a chess champion (though she’s quit, now) and harbouring a secret about her father that is eating her up inside, Yahaira’s life has been as filled with struggles as anyone’s, but none of them are concerning survival like they are for Camino. Like I said though, you don’t have the sense that Yahaira’s problems are less-than as a result of that. Her pain – and she has been through some real trauma – is never compared to Camino’s. The girls just exist in their different worlds without the author passing any judgement and it’s that masterful writing that makes your own feelings so complicated once they finally meet. Because Yahaira gets it wrong a lot – as is inevitable when meeting someone whose life experiences are so far outside of your own, let alone when that person happens to be the sister you didn’t know existed. And even though you cringe for her, and at times even feel frustrated by her behaviour, you can never judge her for it, because by the time the sisters meet, Yahaira has utterly captivated your heart. This novel is such a nuanced look at privilege and how it can be used that was as heartfelt as it was challenging.
This complicated, dysfunctional family has no villains, and it’s a testament to Acevedo’s writing that even with the amount of wrong that had been done by them, particularly the parents, none of them ever felt like either Camino or Yahaira’s enemy – even their deceased father, who started all the problems in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, you’re constantly angry at them, frustrated by them, even mystified by them, but the storytelling demands your empathy extend to them anyway.
Clap When You Land is a book about acceptance and forgiveness, acknowledging – finally – everything that is wrong and deciding to walk towards something better, together. It’s beautiful, and once you start reading I promise you won’t want to put it down until you’ve made it all the way to the end.