Tobar creates a drama in a bizarre microcosm of Southern California - Orange County in particular. An affluent couple pares down their household help to one, the housekeeper, Araceli Ramirez, the gardener and the nanny falling victim to Maureen Thompson and Scott Torres’ budget-conscious economies. Suddenly the housekeeper is the only buffer for an unhappy couple whose arguments grow more strident as their communication dwindles. The result: both parents leave in a temper, Maureen with baby daughter in tow. Neither realizes that the boys, eleven and eight respectively, are left alone with Araceli. In the midst of domestic disharmony with no instructions or
follow-up from either parent, Araceli undertakes a journey to deliver the boys, Brandon and Keenan, to their paternal grandfather in Los Angeles County’s Huntington Park.
Used to navigating her own life with the utmost simplicity, the conscientious housekeeper has no frame of reference for her situation, gamely ushering her charges through parentless nights until they begin the trek from Orange County by bus and on foot with only an old photograph and address to guide them. In stages that would be comic were it not for the scathing indictment of the cultural vacuum between classes in Southern California, Tobar deconstructs the rabid consumerism of the Torres-Thompson’s and the often-fringe existence of the immigrant population, including increasingly vocal political extremes in a state where rhetoric and media exposure often trump truth.
Once out of Orange County, Araceli and the boys’ journey takes on the rich colors and textures of a city of many faces, from a homeless camp to a family that welcomes them to a Fourth of July celebration. From Fullerton to Huntington Park, Southern California is revealed with all its warts, spanning the fading glory of formerly pristine neighborhoods to iron-barred apartments, a patchwork of lives cobbled together from old traditions and the hope of better opportunities. As the drama evolves with each news cycle, the misrepresentations and misunderstandings multiply, various factions jockeying for media attention while a family struggles to redefine itself. Meanwhile, Araceli loses a job, finds herself in jail, and becomes a cause celebre, albeit a temporary one.
Araceli is finely drawn: independent, vaguely resentful of her employers’ lack of curiosity about their hired help, yet doggedly determined to get her charges to their grandfather safely. But like Alice down the rabbit hole, Araceli is swallowed by the interpretations of others, events spiraling out of control, from a search for the “kidnapped” boys to a courtroom drama where an avid public takes sides and hysteria escalates with each new outrage. Maureen and Scott are self-centered, New Age parents losing their souls in the pursuit of status, Araceli a symbol of success, yet an enigma to the people who have brought her into their home.
Although Tobar brings the hyphenated family (Scott is half-Mexican) back to a respectable adjustment within the new parameters of their lives, there is little doubt where the fault lies. Justice takes the shape of those with the highest profiles, but Araceli dances like a pied piper through another, more exotic land, one that exists beneath the surface of a state bifurcated by race, politics and identity.