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June 01, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

Underground America

Narratives of Undocumented Lives

Edited by Peter Orner, foreword by Luis Alberto Urrea

Voice of Witness/McSweeney's Books: 380 pp., $24

"UNDOCUMENTED immigrants," Luis Alberto Urrea writes in his foreword, "have no way to tell you what they have experienced. . . . They are, by the very nature of their experience, invisible."

There are 24 stories documented here. Editor Peter Orner and a team of graduate students from San Francisco State University went looking for stories for Voice of Witness, which publishes "oral histories of people around the world who have had their human and civil rights violated." The storytellers hold many different jobs, have different reasons for leaving home and different expectations about U.S. life. Mr. Lai left China after officials found that he and his wife had violated the one-child policy. Saleem, 54, was summarily deported to Pakistan after Sept. 11. Roberto came from Mexico at 14; it took him 30 years to get a green card. "Everything we do is a crime," says a Mexican man called El Mojado. "You don't have papers, it's a crime. You buy fake papers, it's a crime." Elizabeth, an English teacher in Bolivia, came to the U.S. in 2004 to get help for her 8-year-old daughter, diagnosed with a severe form of arthritis. With no money, she slid through the American underworld, down the steps that so many of these people describe: rape, robbery, exploitation and a complete lack of credibility -- no way to get help, and no way out.

Decades after arriving, many want desperately to go home and cannot. "I wouldn't make it back across," says Adela, a Mexican woman who has been here for 18 years and longs to see her family but doesn't dare leave her children. "No, there are too many that have died in the desert, too many who have drowned."

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Shopping for Porcupine

A Life in Arctic Alaska

Seth Kantner

Milkweed: 256 pp., $28

"ORDINARY Wolves" was Seth Kantner's unforgettable novel about a young white boy growing up in the Arctic. The book had an authenticity of detail and psychology that reviewers praised, and no wonder: Kantner grew up in a sod house in the Alaskan wilderness. His father and mother were well-educated, hard-working back-to-the-landers. "Hippies, people called these strangers, my parents included, although they didn't smoke dope or drink and mostly had college degrees. Each and all were very different . . . some wanting to build empires of a sort and others, like my dad, wanting to leave as little mark as possible."

Inupiat were quick to help and teach their ways. Kantner built his own sled and had his own dog team at age 7; he learned how to hunt and trap and fish and fix just about everything. He went out in the world, not too far, and returned to Alaska with a wife and a baby daughter.

But things aren't the same. Snowmobiles and automatic rifles and other technologies have changed the landscape. Populations (fish, rabbits, many others) have dwindled. "Our need for foods and furs from the land has shrunk exponentially as the Gore-Tex and plastic, Pepsi and Banquet chicken have come off the airplanes," Kantner writes. Though he's made a life as a writer of international reputation and as a wildlife photographer, "I feel at home and yet uneasy. . . . Forces are out there and coming. Powerful things like pavement, and strip mines."

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