A Review of
Clap When You Land: A Novel-in-Verse
Reviewed by Cate Desjardins
On November 12, 2011, a plane carrying 251 passengers en route to the Dominican Republic crashed shortly after takeoff in Queens, New York. Most of the passengers were Dominican, either heading home or going to visit relatives. The crash rocked Dominican neighborhoods in New York, where almost everyone knew someone who knew someone who was on the plane. A young Elizabeth Acevedo, growing up in a majority Dominican neighborhood, grew up in the light of this plane crash, always remembering how quickly the media-cycle stopped covering such a pivotal event just once it was determined that the crash was not a terrorist incident.
Elizabeth Acevedo, an Afro-Latina poet and previous National Slam Champion, took the YA world by storm in 2018 with her National Book Award winning, The Poet X. The book revolves around the majority Dominican neighborhood of Morningside Heights and traces the coming-of-age of Xiomara “X” as she finds her voice through poetry. It’s a masterful book, and deservingly swept the awards scene for Young Adult fiction in 2018.
Literature Books of Fall 2020
In her fourth novel-in-verse, Clap When You Land, Acevedo returns to the horror of American Airlines Flight 587, and the lives upended and uprooted as a result of it. In a similar but fictional aviation accident, a young woman in Queens learns that her father has died. Simultaneously, a young woman waiting for her father to arrive in the Dominican Republic for his annual visit learns his plane has crashed en route. Having led a double-life, with two wives in two countries, a reality Acevedo uncovered in some of her research around the real AA Flight 587, the book explores the double up-ending of the sisters’ lives as they grieve the loss of their father and discover each others’ existence.
As with all of Acevedo’s books, the standout quality is the poetry itself. Acevedo’s writing is tight and quick while simultaneously flowing and lyrical. There is a rhapsodic quality to her writing, which pushes the story forward while also allowing the reader to linger on certain images and metaphors that anchor the complex narrative.
For the two sisters, Yahaira in New York and Camino in the Dominican Republic, those metaphors are chess and healing respectively. For years, Yahaira was enthusiastically encouraged by her father to pursue Chess play and tournaments. In the year before her father’s death, she quit. The forces behind that quitting are revealed slowly and, while unsurprising when they are revealed, are an important commentary on trauma and ambition. For Camino, who accompanies her Tia, a traditional healer, on medical house calls and dreams of going to the US to become a doctor, her narrative is sprinkled with references to plants and healing ceremonies.
It is, particularly in this moment in history where we are yet again necessarily aware of the chasm between Black America and White America, the chasm between the worlds of the two girls, who are both Dominican but with vastly different life experiences, that propelled me forward as a reader. There were moments, after the sisters began to get to know each other, where it felt impossible, they would ever find common ground. That tension drove me forward as a reader.
The book started slowly, staying within both sisters’ worlds. In the beginning, I lingered on the poetry, the words and metaphors and rhythm. It was when the two sisters’ narratives came together that I found myself unable to put the book down until I finished it. The climax was harrowing and also heartwarming. Clap When You Land asks big questions about what makes a family, how to forgive and continue to love those who have gone before us, and who owns grief when events lay waste to whole communities and multiple families. This is a book about grief, but not as much the inner-world of grief, but the ways that death upends whole worlds and what we thought we knew of ourselves.
For readers of faith, Clap When You Land narrates a faith, that of Camino and her Tia, that seamlessly blends Christianity and traditional beliefs and practices without questioning that blending but celebrating it. This is valuable and necessary in literature and in conversation. The book also offers us a Queer character who is, in no way, defined by that Queerness but lives into it with grace and an expectation of acceptance.
Clap When You Land was, for me, the most compelling of Acevedo’s novels to date. Her poetry and plotting have always been strong, but continue to get even better. Clap When You Land is, above all, a satisfying read. One that ends with a hopeful note, but yet much to be discovered and learned and re-learned by the characters as they move forward into their lives forever changed. It’s a timely book for this moment when our world is leaning into unprecedented times, marked by grief, and increasingly aware there will be no “going back” to normal. Clap When You Land has much to teach us.