Behold the Dreamers: Exploring How Upbringing Affects a Person

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In Imbolo Mbue’s 2016 novel Behold the Dreamers we are presented to Cindy Edwards’s and Neni Jonga’s characters, two mothers living seemingly different lives – the former being a good looking nutritionist, described as a “woman with a rich husband” (p.29); the latter being a Cameroonian emigrant, working in America as a home health aide, studying chemistry at Borough of Manhattan Community College trying to become a pharmacist. It becomes clear throughout the book that the two women have more in common than they believe.

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Neni looks at Cindy as a woman born into wealth: “Rich father, rich mother, rich husband. I’m sure her whole life she’s never known what it’s like to worry about money.” (p.29). However, when their paths intertwine while Neni is working for Cindy at the Edwards’s house in Southampton, Cindy confesses that is not the case: “I came from a poor family. A very, very poor family” (p.123) and this is one of the reasons why Cindy likes to show her “air of superiority” with a “portrait of a self-assured woman” (page 115). When the reader gets know Cindy, he realizes that Cindy is an extremely insecure woman whose past affects her family relationship – being a mistreated child of rape, she believes that she was never wanted in the first place, thus, she is a woman with desperate needs whose happiness is dependent on the happiness of her children “if Mighty was laughing and Vince was smiling, there couldn’t be a happier woman on earth than Cindy Edwards” (p. 115). As a result, there is a need for a sense of belonging regarding her sons and a confirmation of that is how miserable she feels for having Vince, her eldest son, abroad – she feels that Vince is abandoning her (p.136).

Neni, like Cindy, always puts her son first: “Jende was right – they had to keep him happy” (p.63), but on the other hand, had a wealthy upbringing, her family being well-off in the late eighties and early nineties, before her father lost his job and wife and had to raise 8 children. She comes from a more conservative culture, where women are only seen as worthy if they are married: “two weeks after their arrival, when they were married at city hall […] she finally became a respectable woman, a woman declared worthy of love and protection.” (p.13). Furthermore, Neni comes from a culture where domestic violence isn’t considered to be a criminal behavior, which is reflected in chapter fifty-four, where she doesn’t press charges after her husband hits her during an argument.

Both women are very concerned about their sons’ education, for example, Cindy’s failed attempt to get Vince to learn the violin and, eventually, “her successful attempt to get Mighty to play the piano” (p.290). Neni’s efforts to give her son a good education are visible in chapter ten, when Liomi’s teacher tells her he hasn’t been attentive during class, due to the “class clown”, Billy (p.65). She prioritizes his learning over his social interactions and is described as a being very involved in his schooling.

Cindy and Neni show their sense of alienation towards their husbands when things are getting hard regarding their economic condition. It seems that when Lehman falls Cindy is more concerned over her social status instead of her husband’s psychological and professional condition. She is being selfish and is not supporting her husband properly, which Clark had accused her of before: “don’t want to see how selfish and callous you are” (p. 133). Neni was also equally selfish, ignoring her husband’s advice and choosing to tell Natasha, from Judson Memorial Church, about their plight, since her main concern was staying in America, “because she believed there were Americans who wanted to keep good hardworking immigrants in America” (p.237).

Their relationship is not always reciprocal; it is mostly transactional. Both are women who care about the others. Thus, Neni is doing more than Cindy pays her to do. After Neni finds Cindy unconscious in bed, surrounded by pill bottles and an empty wine glass she ends up having to constantly hide Cindy’s ever-more-frequent drinking and Vicodin intake. Similarly, Cindy gives money to help Jende’s brother: “pulled out a check from the front pocket oh her purse and handed it to him” (p .85) and when Liomi got sick, with a case of pneumonia, Cindy had sent “a basket of fruits and teas and healthy snacks” (p. 165).

Unlike Neni, who wants loyalty in a man above all, Cindy would rather fire Jende for not telling her about her husband’s cheating rather than actually divorcing her husband over his cheating, which ends up happening after Jende omits the truth (p.251). Neni then bribes Cindy with a picture she took of her passed out in the Hamptons, after being denied help. It then becomes clear that both women are determined to fix the problems that emerge.

In conclusion, despite having different upbringings and different lives, both women are good women and mothers, always looking out for what’s best for their children, but can be very selfish and similar in terms of ignoring the means to achieve their ends, even if that means people will lose their jobs or lives.

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