Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel Clap When You Land is a poignant tale written in memory of the lives lost on American Airlines flight 587, which began as a routine flight headed from New York City to Santo Domingo but became America’s second deadliest plane crash. In a dual-perspective novel, Acevedo skillfully captures a story in verse that would be difficult to portray even in prose.
The novel centers on two sisters, Camino and Yahaira Rios, who are left figuring out how to survive in the aftermath of their father’s death and the secrets he left behind. Those secrets include hiding that he had two families and separating himself into parts across the Atlantic. Shocked by the news of each other’s existence, Camino and Yahaira are left to reckon with the discovery of their father’s dual life after his death.
Having been separated by the very ocean their father was trying to cross, the story takes place between New York and the Dominican Republic. In a way that Acevedo aptly manages to capture through poetry, she highlights the struggles that Camino and Yahaira face individually while also positing their experiences in the faces of the larger tragedy and circumstances. Issues such as sexual assault, racism, homophobia, capitalism and economic inequality come up in the novel while not taking center stage. Because though the story is about the aftermath of the crash, these factors still play into the sisters’ lived experiences as women of color (and for Yahaira, as a queer woman of color).
The writing itself is beautiful, and Acevedo’s background as a slam poet influences the delivery of the poetry in the novel itself. There were many pages to mark for the impact of Acevedo’s verse. Though I would have enjoyed seeing more of Camino and Yahaira’s relationship had they met each other earlier in the novel, the story was still well-paced and their characters are captured in strong focus. Camino is an aspiring obstetrician following in the footsteps of her Tía as someone who loves healing. Yahaira is a former chess player who enjoys spending time with her girlfriend as she gardens, but struggles to be visible in her own life.
Almost ironically, in the lingering presence of the man whose absence has affected them all, the novel is strongly focused on the female characters—Camino, Yahaira, and the significant women in each of their lives that support them. The diverse women at the forefront drive the plot as they each struggle to cope with their grief in the wake of such a tragedy. Acevedo pulls the reader into the story through her compelling voice in mastery of the verse novel, bringing us into the women’s worldviews, turbulent emotions, hopes and dreams.
Clap When You Land is about the deadly airline crash of flight 187, but it is also about the tragedies that happen continuously in the world around us. Tragedies that we choose to become desensitized to, are unaware of, or ignore. Tragedies that come up on the news but that we forget soon after hearing unless they directly affect someone close to us. At the center of these tragedies are stories, and the people left to cope in the aftermath as they struggle through loss.
Camino and Yahaira grapple in an attempt to come to terms with their Papi’s secrets while grieving his death. In highlighting the characters and their flaws, including those of the deceased, their stories are humanized in the larger narrative of desensitization or amnesia in regards to death in tragedy.
Whether you regularly read poetry and verse novels or wanted to give the story a try because of its plot, Clap When You Land is a powerful verse novel that packs an emotional punch through its strong female characters and compelling voice—and it most definitely deserves at least one read.