“The House on Mango Street”, a 1984 novel by Sandra Cisneros, is a short book. It’s written in short bursts, with small chapters, some of which are barely a page long. That is probably what draws me to the book time and again. I know I can finish it in a day and move on. But every time I pick it up, I’m also hoping to get something more out of this little book that’s sold millions of copies, made its way into different prescribed syllabi, and is considered a modern classic. And it doesn’t disappoint. Each reading leaves me feeling a little different from how I did before.
Partly based on Cisneros’s own experience, The House on Mango Street is the story of Esperanza Cordero, a 12-year-old Chicana girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago. The story explores what it’s like belonging to a low economic class family and living in a patriarchal community besides also dealing with elements of class, race, identity, gender, and sexuality.
At the start of the book, you find out Esperanza and her family have arrived on Mango Street. Before coming to Mango Street, they had moved a lot—from one run-down building to another—always promising themselves that they would own the next place and that it would be their ‘dream house’. The house on Mango Street is finally theirs but it’s far from the home they had always dreamt of.
Though the place is a lot better than any of the previous homes they have lived in, Esperanza isn’t happy. She pines for a ‘real’ house with a big garden and everything else she has seen in ‘ideal’ houses on TV. The rest of the story is basically Esperanza’s growing-up years in the house as she writes poetry to express her suppressed feelings, makes friends who aren’t really friends, and tries to craft a better life for herself.
I can understand the universal appeal of this book and why it’s prescribed reading in many countries. A story of a girl transforming through the challenges she faces as she steps into her teenage is motivating. With Esperanza, Cisneros has also delved into the immigrant experience and difficulties that children and young adults face as they struggle to fit in when they find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. The only problem I have and what’s perhaps a bit jarring for me is the book’s narrative structure. It can get a bit confusing at times and you find yourself rereading certain parts because they have gone over your head.
But despite its length, A House on Mango Street feels like a full-fledged novel and that’s the beauty of it. You will feel like you have known the titular character for a really long time because, a) there is just so much happening in the story, and b) with her intriguing thoughts and feelings, Esperanza takes up a lot of space in your head and heart. You can also relate a lot with her because some struggles—feeling like you don’t belong, trying to change yourself and your situation—are universal.