Thursday, June 11, 2009

Into the Beautiful North--Luis Urrea (Book Review)

Luis Alberto Urrea's Into The Beautiful North is a road trip story with a twist. Three nineteen-year-old girls and Tacho, their gay male friend, are on a mission to save their village, which they've suddenly realized has lost all its men to the North. In an effort to recreate the heroics of the movie The Magnificent Seven, they aim to cross the U.S. border and bring seven Mexicans back to Tres Camarones with them to defeat the drug dealers who they fear will take over the town.

The naivety of Nayeli and her friends is part of the charm as they set off on their trek to the United States. Urrea is an artist when it comes to setting the scene, using just the right number of brush strokes to paint a clear picture without letting the action drag. Here's Nayeli, exploring the mini-village that's been haphazardly erected out of old garage doors and box springs, in the Tijuana city dump:
Nayeli backed away from the dog and wandered down the alley to the edge of the cemetery. She was startled to see smoke rising from one of the graves. The crosses and painted furniture were stark in the morning light. Etched like charcoal drawings. Somewhere, a radio was playing--she recognized the song. Dave Matthews. She always liked that rola, the one where he asked the woman to crash into him, though now it seemed like the loneliest thing she'd ever heard.
As the tale unfolds, their adventure becomes the backdrop for a subtle commentary on the politics of immigration. This should come as no surprise, given Urrea's history as the author of The Devil's Highway, a work of nonfiction centered around Mexican-American immigration, but Into The Beautiful North is entirely fiction. That is, except for Tacho. . . . And Aunt Irma. Those characters are based on real people. But, I digress. Where was I? Ah, yes--subtle commentary on the politics of immigration:
Nayeli was stunned to see mothers with children--the kids weeping and snot faced. She heard indiginous tongues in the pen--shamanic-sounding utterances that felt a million years old to her, sounds of jungle and temple and human sacrifice.

Nayeli looked at the migra agents through the iron mesh. Big men. Happy, bright-faced men. Shiny and crisp. Green uniforms. Short hair. Mustaches.

What made them different from her?

She could not tell.
The writing is beautiful, the story and characters are engaging. The only thing missing from the story is a sense of urgency. The bandidos in Tres Camarones don't actually do anything except sit around in their cars, looking ominous. The reader is able to enjoy the adventure of Nayeli and friends as if it were a topsy-turvy college Spring Break. A scene or two of these fellows wreaking havoc back in Tres Camarones would have turned a pleasurable read into a gripping, can't-put-it-down book.

The Soundtrack: Urrea is a big music lover, and has created an entire playlist for the book, soon to be published on Largehearted Boy. He says, "I think of Shake Away by Lila Downs as the theme song." And since I quoted the reference to it, here's the Dave Matthew's Band song as a bonus.

Publication Info: Little, Brown & Company, May 2009


  1. I've got 18 pages to go in this book and I've really enjoyed it. Your review is fantastic!

  2. Thank you for the kind review. I'm so glad you liked my book and were willing to go on the journey with me as I tried something a little different. The battle of Tres Camarones ... you just never know ... maybe a book two? ;) For this one, though, the narcos were a bit of a red herring and I didn't want them to distract from the *real* reasons for the quest. For Nayeli, Irma and Tacho (at least) it was much more of a personal urgency. I can hardly wait to post the soundtrack when we're done with booktour!
    Thanks again!

  3. I've been itching to get my hands on this one...loved your thoughts!!

  4. I'm very excited because I am also getting this book.

  5. I'm waiting on a copy, too. Can't wait. Love you review.

  6. BermudaOnion,I'm glad you liked it, too! I thought you would.

    Luis, Well, I had a feeling you did that on purpose. ;-) I wasn't so much looking for a big climactic battle scene--in fact, the ending worked well for me. Just wished for a little more midpoint tension back at the ranch. But I'd definitely read "The Battle of Tres Camarones," and in the meantime I'm delighted to have several from your backlist yet to read.

    Staci, Rhapsody, Marie, and Susan, I'm looking forward to seeing your thoughts on this one!

  7. I'm a few chapters in, but I need to finish The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane before I can pick this one back up.

    I'm a huge Dave Matthews fan, so I'm looking forward to finding that reference.

  8. Ali,

    I posted your link for our weekly Little Lov'n Monday prompt. Readers drop links to post they think deserve some lov'n.

  9. I'm getting this book as part of the Hachette Latino Giveaway package and I am just so psyched! I am glad you loved the book. Fantastic review, Ali.

  10. This really does sound like an amazing read- putting it on my TBR for Thursday's library trip- if they have it...

  11. Softdrink, I thought I knew the Dave Matthews band but I've heard them two or three times in the last few months and come to the conclusion that I either got them mixed up with someone else or only ever heard one song of theirs. They're always better than I expect.

    Thanks, Susan, I saw that. :-)

    Rebecca, congratulations on your win--that's a great prize package!

    Sharazad, my library's copies are in but are all on reserve already. I hope you can snag a copy.