American Afterlife is one of those rare gems where you not only discover a new author but find a book that is just so good, it will stick with you forever. I read this in two sittings because I was just unable to look away from the beauty of Cielo’s story, although the novel is bleak, relentless and horrifying all at once, yet you continue to cheer for the heroine as she struggles to survive in a world no one would want to live in.
Cielo Wolfgang, a fifteen-year-old undocumented immigrant, came over from Mexico 5 years ago with her Mother. She is now in Eugene, Oregon, abandoned by her Mother for a religious cult. Cielo is living in a converted garage when a 9.2 earthquake hits. Rescue comes in the form of helicopters to help those who are still alive. However, because Cielo is undocumented and alone, she is terrified to be discovered. So when the planes come to rescue survivors, she hides in the garage to wait until they are gone. Because of the earthquake, Eugene is now an island on all sides, with stagnant floodwaters, with most of the town completely underwater. She uses a canoe to get around the city, foraging for food and supplies in different neighborhoods, which may or may not have half-dead survivors. Completely on her own, she keeps an eye out for her Mother but also for the evangelical cult, Collective of Redeemed Souls, who are going from house to house, rounding up survivors and taking them back to their headquarters.
“So I had known about the Collection’s growing numbers, about their obsession with guns, pictures of guns, pictures of guns and bibles, memes of patriotism, patriotism and Bible verses, posts about hating liberals, posts about hating the mainstream media, posts about hating the radical left and people of color.”
If this all sounds familiar to the reader, yes, this book can get political. But it is only a small piece of this gorgeous novel. Cielo’s world is bleak as is her future. She relies on xanax and alcohol to get through each day. The pictures you get in your head of her crawling through collapsed houses looking for food and medicine, and more pills and alcohol to get her through the day, feels real because it is described with such intimate detail. What she doesn’t know is that someone is watching her, a former collective member, acting as a savior for her. What is so beautiful about this novel is all the images, tiny details of the ruin of America. But also, Cielo is hardened and brave in the way a 15-year-old shouldn’t have to be. You can’t help but root for her and want to protect her.
“You are without God,” she says. ‘Estas sin Dios, m’hija. Perdida.’” “I’ve been stuck here, ‘ I say. I’ve been stuck for a long time, but I’ve never been lost.”
Hoffmeister’s pacing of American Afterlife is quick and smart. He has created a wonderful character in Cielo. This novel is very dark and sometimes needs to be put down to continue. It will stay with this reader for a long time.