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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH by Luis Alberto Urrea

Contemporary Fiction
Back Bay Books, 2009
338 pages  $14.99

I’m always astounded by how many great writers exist whose work I’ve never read and never heard of. Luis Alberto Urrea was one of them until I ran across Into the Beautiful North on some list or other and requested it as a Christmas gift—in 2010. I know, I know, I’m behind on my reading. Shut up. But this book was worth the wait.

First of all, I admire with a little teeth-grinding jealousy someone who can write such lyrical prose in English and yes, in Spanish, too! Both this book and Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter  (now also on my reading list) are available in both languages. Because he’s just that good. The sentences flow, the descriptions blossom into pictures right before your eyes, and besides all that, the story is eminently readable, suspenseful, exciting.

It begins in a small, dusty, forgotten Mexican town called Tres Camarones. Most of the able-bodied male population has fled north, leaving the mostly female community vulnerable to drug bandits and negative population growth. Nayeli, a plucky 19-year-old, decides after seeing Yul Brynner kick butt in The Magnificent Seven that there’s only one way to save this dying town: Go to the USA and bring back seven magnificent Mexican men to drive out the banditos and spawn a new generation. So she packs up and braves a journey across the border with her homegirls and their gay male buddy to do just that.

A great road-trip novel like this one wouldn’t be complete without wacky characters and dangerous experiences, but the book is anything but formulaic. It’s funny, original, and peopled with folks you wish you could know outside the pages. Those of us who live in Los Yunaites and take it for granted get to see it through the eyes of outsiders—the good and the bad. Are Nayeli and her fellow “wetbacks” treated well? Sometimes. Is the Beautiful North all it’s cracked up to be? Again, sometimes. This is one of those books that you alternately savor and race through, wishing the story went on and on after the last page. And, like all good stories, it does. We just don’t get to read about it.

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