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We Never Asked for Wings


We Never Asked for Wings

Following the success of THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, author Vanessa Diffenbaugh launched Camellia Network, a nonprofit aimed at connecting youths rising out of foster care to the resources necessary to help them thrive as adults. With this same informed, passionate eye, Diffenbaugh has penned WE NEVER ASKED FOR WINGS, a heartfelt tale of first love, impossible choices, and the inequalities of class and race. Set in different neighborhoods of San Francisco, this poignant novel centers on Letty Espinosa, a middle-aged woman faced with several difficult choices when her parents return to Mexico.

At the start of WE NEVER ASKED FOR WINGS, it is nearly impossible to feel for Letty. When the narrative opens, she is racing at breakneck speed into Mexico to chase down her mother, who has left in search of her husband. Letty’s father, an illegal immigrant, returned to Mexico weeks ago for a funeral and has not been heard from since. Letty is not concerned for his safety, but rather terrified that she will have to begin raising her children, 15-year-old Alex and six-year-old Luna, alone. This is not to say that Letty is completely negligent, as she works several jobs around San Francisco to pay for both her immediate family and other relatives in Mexico, but even she cannot remember the last time she was alone with her kids. This is certainly an unusual way to introduce a maternal figure, but Diffenbaugh is adept at immersing the reader in Letty’s fear. She is not only scared for herself, but terrified that her children will no longer have a strong adult role model.

"In a story filled to the brim with dynamic characters, poignant observations and boundless hope, love is what truly holds the narrative together."

Meanwhile, on the American side of the border, Letty’s children are waking up alone for the first time in their lives. Alex, smart and stubborn, quickly takes the lead, getting wild young Luna ready for school. Although he is clearly capable of fending for himself, it is heartbreaking to see how easily he assumes the role of the adult --- and even more painful when he fails, unable to cook or do Luna’s hair. He is worried that someone will notice and begin asking questions, but, unfortunately, the children’s school is a hotbed for gang activity and bullying, so one unbrushed head easily goes unnoticed.

Having been introduced to Letty’s children, it is easy to identify Letty as the villain, but this is only a surface analysis of Diffenbaugh’s dynamic characters. Letty loves her children deeply, but has never had the opportunity to act as their parent. Shortly after Alex’s birth, she was pushed into the workforce when her father hurt his back, leaving her to support their family. Miserable and desperate for the joys of youth, she turned to alcohol when she was not working. Disappointed in her daughter, Letty’s mother took over, caring for Alex as if he was her own. Even in the brief moments when Letty would try to mother Alex, his grandmother was always ready to step in. Now, however, Letty’s parents have decided to stay in Mexico, tired of working endlessly to always be regarded as “illegal,” and it is up to Letty to step up for the first time in her life.

Letty’s path to motherhood is not without incident --- to say she gets off to a rocky start would be the understatement of the century, but her love for her children is powerful. She quickly changes her work schedule so that she will be available at night, despite the lack of tips during lunchtime as an airport bartender. She even finds a playmate for rambunctious Luna, though her zeal for life is difficult to match.

At the same time, Alex is experiencing the struggles of adulthood himself. Brilliant and curious, he is no longer stimulated by his understaffed and underfunded school. Worried at the prospect of Letty as a full-time mother, he is also beginning to want a relationship with his father, about whom Letty has told him nothing. Alex is clever, though, and has put together some clues based on Letty’s keepsakes, pinpointing his father as a doctor named Wes Riley. He is also in love for the first time, which terrifies his mother, as her early mistakes with Wes nearly cost her family everything. Through her flashbacks, we learn that Alex was the result of first love and that Wes has no idea he exists, as Letty did not want to interrupt his college and career plans. Here is a woman who has sacrificed everything: her education, her interests and even a relationship with her children, all in an effort to make ends meet. By exposing a few important details, Diffenbaugh has turned Letty into a hero.

Although things are beginning to work out for this tiny, hope-filled family, there are still issues, namely Alex’s high school and Letty’s lack of funds. Joining forces with a creative bartender at work, Letty launches a plan to raise enough money to move to a fancier neighborhood, which will give Alex access to Mission Hills, the best high school in the area. Alex is delighted at the opportunity, but he does not know how close it will bring him to his mother’s history. As he learns more about her, however, he sees her as a full person for the first time and finally begins to appreciate the sacrifices she has made for him.

As with any good novel, there are romantic surprises in store for Letty as well, but they are better saved for those who wish to read WE NEVER ASKED FOR WINGS. In a story filled to the brim with dynamic characters, poignant observations and boundless hope, love is what truly holds the narrative together. At the same time, Diffenbaugh fearlessly pokes at our ideas of class and justice, asking why some responsible, working humans should be worth less than others. Her careful handling of timely issues such as immigration and socioeconomic inequalities adds depth, but it is her powerful portrayals of love that make this novel a must-read.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on September 11, 2015

We Never Asked for Wings
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

  • Publication Date: April 5, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0553392336
  • ISBN-13: 9780553392333