Jennine Capó Crucet's acclaimed debut novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, this year's choice for the annual Summer Read Program at Whitman, struck a chord with students, staff and faculty for its timely handling of issues such as assimilation and micro-aggressions.
Winner of the International Latino Book Award for Best Latino-themed Fiction, it centers on the experiences of Cuban American college student Lizet, the first in her family to graduate from high school. This resonated with Inda Dahlstrom '21 of Mount Vernon, Washington, a member of Whitman's First Generation/Working Class club.
"The protagonist answers to both 'Liz' and 'L'—sometimes she doesn't know which version of herself she is," Dahlstrom said. "As a first year, I'm beginning to figure out who I am, but I realize that my identity at Whitman may be different than my identity at home. This novel helped me be comfortable with the uncertainty that goes along with self-discovery."
Crucet will read from the coming-of-age saga—which School Library Journal praised as "beautifully written and compulsively readable"—tonight at Whitman. She will also take questions from the audience. The free event is open to the public. Her itinerary additionally includes a stop at the Walla Walla Public Library and an evening dinner reception at Sherwood House.
Filled with what The New York Times calls "sharp cultural observations," Crucet's narrative chronicles Lizet's tough transition to college against the backdrop of family struggles, including her parents' divorce. Her first visit home to Miami is further overshadowed by the media circus surrounding five-year-old Ariel Hernandez, whose perilous voyage from Cuba by raft is a fictionalized account of the 2000 Elián González immigration controversy.
"I remember the news coverage of the arrival of Elián González from Cuba to the U.S. in an inner tube and the challenges of understanding home as a fixed location," said Associate Dean of Students Juli Dunn, who found the book "highly relevant to the work we are aiming to do at Whitman" regarding diversity and inclusion. "This read hit me in the heart."
"The book highlights the complexities that come with attending a college like Whitman for many of our students, especially first-generation students," echoed President Kathleen Murray. "Many are trying to navigate cultural, generational and political differences, all while being away from home and trying to perform academically. Discussion surrounding this book will give us all a chance to think critically about how we can be the most welcoming community for students of all backgrounds."
Phyllis Pawa '21 of Newton Centre, Massachusetts, added, "The Summer Read had an interesting perspective on a student starting college from a diverse background" and revealed how hard fitting in can be "when life back home is falling apart."
Now in its second decade, the Summer Read Program tasks all first-years with reading a noteworthy text before the semester starts. Summer Read acts as a springboard for intellectual discourse, particularly during orientation week. This emphasizes "that the academic education here at Whitman is not just an individual endeavor," as Associate Dean of Students for Campus Life Nancy Tavelli put it. "It is an exploration conducted by communities of students living and thinking together."
During a meeting with residence life staff, resident directors reported that students "spent time discussing their own identities, what it's like coming to college and the challenges [they] face during that transition," she said. Talking about Crucet's book "provided an opportunity to practice literary criticism while simultaneously reflecting on their own experiences."