Down Here We Come Up, Sara Johnson Allen’s debut novel, tells a story both focused on place and on the people who inhabit certain places but often go unseen or ignored due to citizenship, class, upbringing, or occupation. The main protagonist, Kate, an attractive white twenty-something who has wiggled her way into New England’s wealthy company despite her impoverished upbringing in rural eastern North Carolina, is lured home to the South per her dying mother’s request and the elder’s promise to give Kate previously secret information. Upon Kate’s arrival, she meets Maribel, a Mexican immigrant who is her mother’s friend and business partner in cartel-related work, and their relationship changes both of their lives forever.
Allen’s work, however, is not an exposé or obtrusive look at some sort of criminalized underbelly nor does she fetishize the struggles of her characters. Instead, Down Here We Come Up complicates the binaries that fill American (and sometimes global) political discourses of immigration, substance use, and expectations of motherhood and gender identity. Allen’s work moves beyond boundaries that often seem fixed or static—borders between countries, between cities and rural spaces, between citizenship and immigration, and even between motherhood and living a child-free existence. By illustrating how enmeshed these seemingly disparate issues and human experiences can be, Allen challenges her readers to consider how their own lives intertwine with others’ lives and the places they collectively call home.
This careful avoidance of stereotypes and “poverty porn” helps Allen’s characters feel like authentic and multidimensional human beings rather than (mis)representatives of particular cultures. Historically and even in the recent past, white authors writing non-white characters has often resulted in problematic and racist portrayals that uphold white supremacy and fuel misconceptions and xenophobia. One way that Allen avoids falling into this trap is by including race and ethnicity not as sole foci of the novel but rather tying these elements to larger political and geographical conversations. Essentially, instead of a story centered on two women overcoming their racial or ethnic differences and becoming close friends or allies, Allen complicates the story in ways that are far less saccharine and far more important.
While race and ethnicity do play into the differing experiences of Kate, Maribel, and other characters, Allen is always careful to tie these inequalities to larger systems. For example, when Kate returns to the US from Juárez, Allen writes, “Until that moment, Kate had never really thought about freedom, had never really felt it in her bones. She never thought what it really meant, being able to move from one building to another, to travel between towns, across highways, to stop at any restaurant or gas station you wanted. To make purchases, to have a conversation, an argument with a clerk, all out in the open. Those with citizenship held fistfuls of options as valuable and malleable as gold” (260). Thus, in this passage and at many points throughout the novel, Allen highlights the ways that US imperialism and systemic racism create white privilege for one group and hardships for others.
Allen’s exploration of class throughout the novel speaks directly to the political and sometimes contemptuous conversations surrounding white privilege. Those in US (and global) society who argue that white privilege is a myth often do so through highlighting poor white folks or those with little formal education. Allen’s character, Kate, however, speaks back to such claims, embodying both a destitute upbringing along with limited formal education and yet benefitting from her light skin, evidenced in her easy and safe passage between US and Mexico and the reason Maribel observes to Kate, “you have what those guards [at the border] are looking for. But it’s not like you did anything. You aren’t smarter. You didn’t work harder. You just get away with more” (243).
The intersections of race and class in Down Here We Come Up not only highlight the global and national systems that create and perpetuate inequalities, but that are also deeply tied to place, with money and resources flowing from some locations to others. Place plays a prominent role in the novel; it’s not simply a setting or stage upon which the narrative plays out. Much of the novel occurs within the US South with some scenes engaging with New England, Juárez, and the US-Mexico border. These seemingly disparate geographies mirror the author’s own experience growing up in eastern North Carolina and later moving to the northeastern US. Her changes in scenery, the novel argues, are not unique and, moreover, changing locales does not disconnect us from the places or people we may think we’ve left behind.
Allen’s novel intriguingly explores place through one’s returning, and how the ability to return to a place and people is very much a function of privilege, yet privilege doesn’t keep the place and its inhabitants, even those we know, from changing. As Kate returns to her childhood home in all its overgrown and homely glory, Allen writes, “Kate knew she had to face that home was no longer yours when you left it. Not in the same way. Maybe she and Maribel both had that in common, although Kate understood the exodus was different. They no longer belonged in the places they left” (201). This spectrum of belonging spans the novel and expands beyond place to how we collectively inhabit and experience such places. As a theme, it asks readers to consider the places we call home: how are we connected, are we still connected, and to whom?
Allen then extends this idea of belonging to motherhood and formations of family. Down Here We Come Up interrogates what makes a family, what makes someone a mother, and how these seemingly simple answers are profoundly complicated. Like many of the novel’s other themes, Allen links the defining moment of motherhood to other similarly precise moments: “Kate did not know it then, but she would understand it later: there are many seemingly meaningless moments before a thing becomes definite. For a while things shimmer and shift undefined, but there comes a point when everything is set in motion. Then it is done, irrevocable” (161). Allen’s ability to weave together so many ideological, political, and personal strands throughout the novel is one of the book’s greatest strengths. These connections seem extremely natural, never forced, and thus draw the reader into the plots and subplots that move the novel along.
One minor critique of Down Here We Come Up is that most of the heightened action of the novel occurs in the last fifth of the book. While the plot and various subplots do move forward through the earlier pages, readers looking for an action-packed novel might give up before receiving their just desserts. Additionally, readers expecting a neat and tidy happy ending should be forewarned that the conclusion of Down Here We Come Up, like the rest of the novel, is messy. Allen isn’t a writer of easy-to-read books that you’d take on a beach vacation to skim with a margarita in hand; she asks a lot of her readers and gives plenty in return.
Jessica Cory teaches in the English Department at Appalachian State University and is a PhD candidate specializing in Native American, African American, and environmental literatures at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019) and the co-editor (with Laura Wright) of Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place (UGA Press, 2023). Her creative and scholarly writings have been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Northern Appalachia Review, and other fine publications. Originally from southeastern Ohio, she currently lives in western North Carolina.