Book Review: John Dennehy’s “Illegal”

Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, John Dennehy left the United States.  The activism that defined his early 20s wasn’t making any headway.  While sitting in a jail cell in Hartford, Connecticut, after being kept awake all night by guards blasting the “Star Spangled Banner” from a boom box, he realized his faith in his ability to change his country had fractured.  His home nation, defined by its blind nationalism and a penchant for war, had left him behind.

my country is going to war; without me

my nation is planning to kill; without me

my president has abandoned peace; without me

Through a chance job listing, he ends up in Cuenca, and later Latacunga, Ecuador.  The next four years of his life are punctuated by revolution, violent love, fear, deportation, border hoping, death threats and a gruesome guinea pig murder.  “Illegal,” Dennehy’s autobiographical first book, spans only 234 pages with epilogue but packs a fair amount of adventure and introspection between its covers.  Dennehy left the United States in search of a contrasting existence, and he finds much of what he’s looking for in Ecuador—for a while.

Prior to leaving the U.S., Dennehy never thought much about the concept and intention of borders, but that changed following a series of dehumanizing experiences between Columbia and Ecuador which came on the heels of a tumultuous, bank-account-draining, deportation back to the United States.

To be deported is to be treated as if you are not a person; you are caged and them dumped somewhere else.  When you are deported, it is not because you committed a crime, it is because you are the crime.

A fiery love story weaves in and out of the narrative, never fully taking over, but propelling the story and inspiring the series of illegal border crossings that anchor the book.  The love described throughout is as intense as the pain it causes—it’s a relationship defined by its polarity, high-highs are often followed by low-lows.  The first quarter of the book is centered around Dennehy experiencing what true revolution looks and feels like; in the last quarter, he realizes he was over-idealizing the movement and its figureheads, including current President of Ecuador Rafael Correa.

The writing in “Illegal” is not showy; Dennehy is a journalist by trade and thus, the prose is mainly concise and intentionally un-flowery.  The style fits the subject matter quite well.  “Illegal” is about recognizing privilege, questioning barriers, embracing the unknown and loving until your soul cracks wide open.

And the release couldn’t be more timely.  As the Trump administration continues to aggressively push its war on immigrants through verbal demonization, ICE round-ups and deportations, increased border control, and a proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico, an aggressive humanization of immigrants is paramount.  Now is the time we should be thinking about what borders represent philosophically, and if their existence is a hindrance or a boon to societal advancement, general happiness, and safety.

Dennehy says “Borders are built on the fear of the unknown” and with the rhetoric that defined much of Trump’s successful campaign, it’s hard not to agree.

Though Dennehy admits he has learned to temper his expectations for utopic revolutions, he still clearly pines for a world driven far more by empathy and understanding than fear and aggression.  “Illegal” is a love letter to idealism and hope, and it’s well worth your time.


Buy “Illegal” here.


Disclosure: John Dennehy has contributed to The Overgrown. 



Written by Jesse Mechanic

Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.

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