Share Coming to America: 13 Immigrant Stories That Represent Our History

Coming to America: 13 Immigrant Stories That Represent Our History

Julianna Haubner joined the editorial team at Simon & Schuster in September 2014. A lifelong reader, she is most drawn to literary fiction, biography, cultural history, and narrative non-fiction; it’s her firm belief that every human should own a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and EMPIRE FALLS is the book that changed her life. When Julianna’s not reading and reviewing, she’s downloading podcast episodes as if there are more than 24 hours in a day, watching Bravo, baking, and running the Off the Shelf Instagram. You can follow her on Twitter @jhaubner2.

When you think of the word “immigrant,” different images may come to mind: perhaps it’s of Ellis Island, or colonists landing at Plymouth, or someone getting off a plane and starting fresh. Whatever your association, one thing has been the same throughout history: people come to America to find a better life for themselves and their families. This year, I am pledging to read more of those stories, especially the ones I haven’t heard before. If you’re looking for a place to start to learn more about the stories of immigrants, we’ve collected 13 novels about immigrating to the United States from its founding to today.


A Place Called Freedom
by Ken Follett

In 1776, 21-year-old Mack McAsh escapes from the coal mines of Scotland where he’s worked for years in hopes of making a better life for himself in London. There, he becomes a leader in a working-class movement, but his involvement eventually results in his exile to the new colony of Virginia. A PLACE CALLED FREEDOM features a vivid cast of heroes and villains (including some familiar faces) that tell of the classic American quest for freedom.

A Place Called Freedom
Ken Follett

In 1776, 21-year-old Mack McAsh escapes from the coal mines of Scotland where he’s worked for years in hopes of making a better life for himself in London. There, he becomes a leader in a working-class movement, but his involvement eventually results in his exile to the new colony of Virginia. A PLACE CALLED FREEDOM features a vivid cast of heroes and villains (including some familiar faces) that tell of the classic American quest for freedom.

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The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street
by Susan Jane Gilman

Malka Treynovsky flees Russia with her family in 1913, only to be crippled and abandoned in the streets of New York shortly after she arrives. Taken in by an Italian ice peddler on the Lower East Side, she soon learns the tricks of his trade and sets off across the country in an ice cream truck. Along the way, she creates an empire and transforms into Lillian Dunkle, “The Ice Cream Queen.”

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street
Susan Jane Gilman

Malka Treynovsky flees Russia with her family in 1913, only to be crippled and abandoned in the streets of New York shortly after she arrives. Taken in by an Italian ice peddler on the Lower East Side, she soon learns the tricks of his trade and sets off across the country in an ice cream truck. Along the way, she creates an empire and transforms into Lillian Dunkle, “The Ice Cream Queen.”

MENTIONED IN:

Coming to America: 13 Immigrant Stories That Represent Our History

By Julianna Haubner | March 2, 2017

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon
This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is best known for its exciting, epic deep dive into the lives of two cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, as they make a name for themselves in the comics industry, but at its core, this is truly a story of immigrants, ambition, and identity. Though Joe escapes Europe before Hitler reaches the apex of his power, he can never quite shake the shadow of fascism cast over his family and work.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon

An exuberant Pulitzer Prize–winning novel that opens in the New York City of 1939. While World War II rages in Europe, a young escape artist and his cousin dive into the American comic book craze, traveling deep into the heart of Manhattan and American ambition.

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Brooklyn
by Colm Tóibín
Adapted into an Oscar-nominated film last year, Colm Tóibín’s short and sweet novel about Eilis Lacey is an unforgettable story about love, loss, and home. When a priest offers to sponsor Eilis in New York, she leaves her beloved sister and small Irish town and moves to Brooklyn. There, she is given a job at a department store and meets a young Italian boy named Tony, but just as she begins to fall in love, news from home pulls her back and has her questioning the decision she’s made to start over.
Brooklyn
Colm Tóibín

Acclaimed character actress Saoirse Ronan takes center stage as Eilis Lacey, a young woman who abandons small-town Ireland and the comfort of her mother's home for the anonymous shores of New York City. In Brooklyn, she finds a city in flux—a city where immigrants from Ireland and Poland live amongst Jewish and black communities—and just as she is beginning to fall in love with a young man, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her new life.

Release Date: November 6, 2015

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
by Julia Alvarez
A contemporary classic, Julia Alvarez’s first novel tells the story of the four García sisters—Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia—and their family’s arrival in New York City after fleeing the Dominican Republic in 1960. While their parents fight to maintain their Caribbean traditions, the girls try to find new lives. HOW THE GARCÍA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS is a must-read that explores the struggle to find the balance between old and new, and the meaning of home.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
Julia Alvarez

This brilliant, buoyant, and beloved novel gives voice to four sisters growing up in two cultures. The García family fled the Dominican Republic for New York City in 1960 when their father’s role in an attempted coup was discovered. In the wild and wondrous and not always welcoming USA, their parents try to hold on to their old ways, but the girls try to find new lives: forgetting their Spanish, straightening their hair, and wearing bell bottoms. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents captures how it is both liberating and excruciating to navigate the old world and the new.

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The Namesake
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri’s beloved novel follows the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta to their new home of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their son, Gogol, is thus forced to walk the difficult path of a first-generation American, navigating loyalty, cultural identity, and love. It is a story of expectations, experiences, and self-definition that will resonate with any reader.
The Namesake
Jhumpa Lahiri

I thought my first exposure to Jhumpa Lahiri’s masterful take on the experiences of Indian immigrants was in college, but I should have known better. The Gilmores pay tribute to Lahiri through a mention of her powerful story about the Ganguli family as they travel from their traditional life in Calcutta to their fraught transformation into Americans.

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Girl in Translation
by Jean Kwok

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, she quickly begins a secret double life: during the day, she is an exceptional student, and by night she works in a Chinatown sweatshop. As she struggles to move between the two worlds she occupies, Kimberly falls in love and tries to find a way to succeed against overwhelming odds.

Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, she quickly begins a secret double life: during the day, she is an exceptional student, and by night she works in a Chinatown sweatshop. As she struggles to move between the two worlds she occupies, Kimberly falls in love and tries to find a way to succeed against overwhelming odds.

MENTIONED IN:

Coming to America: 13 Immigrant Stories That Represent Our History

By Julianna Haubner | March 2, 2017

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The Book of Unknown Americans
by Cristina Henríquez

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS centers around the Rivera family as they journey to America from Mexico after their daughter, Maribel, is injured and in need of care. Once they arrive, Maribel attracts the attention (and affection) of one of their new neighbors. The love story that follows, intertwined with the stories of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America, has profound repercussions for everyone involved.

The Book of Unknown Americans
Cristina Henríquez

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS centers around the Rivera family as they journey to America from Mexico after their daughter, Maribel, is injured and in need of care. Once they arrive, Maribel attracts the attention (and affection) of one of their new neighbors. The love story that follows, intertwined with the stories of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America, has profound repercussions for everyone involved.

MENTIONED IN:

Coming to America: 13 Immigrant Stories That Represent Our History

By Julianna Haubner | March 2, 2017

Close

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid
Changez is living the American dream: he’s a graduate of Princeton working at a high-end firm and is embarking on a new relationship with a beautiful society woman. But when the Twin Towers fall, everything changes. As the world’s view of him is completely upended, Changez finds himself doubting the life he’s made for himself, and questioning whether it’s possible for the country he now loves to love him back.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Mohsin Hamid

Changez is living an immigrant’s dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by an elite valuation firm. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his budding romance with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore. But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned and his relationship with Erica shifting. And Changez’s own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love.

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Americanah
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
AMERICANAH centers around the young Nigerian couple Ifemelu and Obinze, who are separated when Ifemelu heads to the United States. There, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time, and what it means to be an other in the aftermath of 9/11. Meanwhile, Obinze has been living an undocumented life in London, until the two reunite in the newly democratic Nigeria 15 years later.
Americanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This powerful story of race and gender is centered on Ifemelu, a brilliant and self-assured young woman who departs military-ruled Nigeria for an American university where, for the first time, she is forced to grapple with her identity as a black woman. Ifemelu faces difficult choices and challenges, suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, and eventually achieves success as the writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. Fearless and gripping, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world.

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We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo
When paramilitary policemen destroy her home, a ten-year-old girl named Darling must leave Zimbabwe to live with an aunt in the United States, a place she calls “Destroyedmichigan” (Detroit, Michigan). Though she travels to the middle of a new country to find opportunity and safety, she soon discovers that her options as an immigrant are few and far between. WE NEED NEW NAMES is a vivid and raw story of displacement and arrival that will break your heart and open your eyes.
We Need New Names
NoViolet Bulawayo

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Open City
by Teju Cole

In this haunting and powerful novel, Julius, a young Nigerian doctor, walks the streets of Manhattan between shifts, reflecting on his present, his past, his relationships, and the choices he has made that have led him to Morningside Heights. Along the way, he meets people from different cultures and classes who help him understand the deepest parts of his own soul.

Open City
Teju Cole

In this haunting and powerful novel, Julius, a young Nigerian doctor, walks the streets of Manhattan between shifts, reflecting on his present, his past, his relationships, and the choices he has made that have led him to Morningside Heights. Along the way, he meets people from different cultures and classes who help him understand the deepest parts of his own soul.

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Behold the Dreamers
by Imbolo Mbue

There have been dozens of novels recently published about the financial crisis of 2008, but few have focused on those most profoundly affected: the working families left to pick up the pieces. Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem with his wife, Neni, and child when he lands a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. As the story alternates between Jende and Neni and speeds perilously close to economic disaster, they learn about privilege, pride, and impossible choices.

Behold the Dreamers
Imbolo Mbue

There have been dozens of novels recently published about the financial crisis of 2008, but few have focused on those most profoundly affected: the working families left to pick up the pieces. Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem with his wife, Neni, and child when he lands a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. As the story alternates between Jende and Neni and speeds perilously close to economic disaster, they learn about privilege, pride, and impossible choices.

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