The House on Mango Street
by Sandra Cisneros (1984)
Vintage (2009)
110 pp

For most of my reading life I’ve known about Sandra Cisneros’s 1983 novel, The House on Mango Street, and despite the fact that I’d never read it I think a part of me figured I knew what it was all about. Recently, for a library book club, I finally sat down to read it, and I absolutely loved it. In some ways it was what I expected from a lifetime of hearing about it: a coming of age story about an impoverished Latina girl. But I did not expect how beautifully written, how powerfully insightful, this short book would be. I already want to read everything Cisneros has written.

When the book begins, we meet our narrator, twelve-year-old Esperanza Cordero. She and her family has moved around a lot, but most recently — and it will turn out to be her home for the next several years — they have moved into a house in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood on Mango Street. It’s not all she’d hoped for.

When I picked the book up, I was surprised by how short its chapters were. There are 44 of them in this book that goes barely over 100 pages. But they’re often even shorter than that would suggest. The way the chapters are laid out in this edition, the start of each begins well below the fold on its first page, and some of the chapters end just a few lines onto the next page. The longest ones are just a few pages.

Despite the brevity, Cisneros packs so much into the short vignettes as we go through the next few years of Esperanza’s life. Some vignettes are funny, some are tragic, but all are immediate. Cisneros captures the voice of a young girl trying to understand the complicated world around her, and in Esperanza’s confusion we learn so much about her, about growing up in general, and about growing up in her situation in particular.

Cisneros has referred to this book as a button jar, with each vignette a different shape and hue, which is such a lovely way to think of this remarkable book.

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