Into The Beautiful North, Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown. 342pp, $24.99.
Luis Alberto Urrea covers a lot of fertile territory in Into the Beautiful North, his latest bitter-sweet novel about Mexican-American relations. The book’s readability, its conventional narrative, and its emotionally uncomplicated heroine cleverly belie the strong political message that is at its heart. Poverty, border violence, and illegal migrants are just a few of the subjects Urrea tackles with both humor and pathos.
Nineteen-year old Nayeli works in a taco shop in the remote (and fictional) Sinaloan village of Tres Camarones. All the men have travelled north to find work in the United States and many, like her father, have not returned. When narco bandidos threaten to move into her home town, Nayeli enlists three friends—Yoloxochitl, Veronica, and her boss Tacho—to travel north with her. Nayeli’s plan is to find her father and recruit six other men to make up the “Magnificent Seven” (the heroes of her favourite film) who, she hopes, will return with them to save their village.
Currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urrea is a master at creating atmosphere—whether it is the soul of a small rural village or the bright lights of a Nevada town—and he doesn’t shy away from painting a less than pretty picture. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea often seems to want to reconcile the two sides of the border in his books. In Into the Beautiful North, both the U.S. and Mexico are portrayed with a romantic allure, but both are also shown as scarred by violence, extremism, and criminal elements. Urrea is at his best when depicting the uglier side of the Tijuana landscape he became intimate with after serving as a relief worker in Tijuana. His description of the garbage dump on the outskirts of the Mexican border town is particularly harrowing:
Before them a malodorous volcano of garbage rose two hundred feet or more. It was dark gray, ashen, black, and it was covered in flecks of white paper as if small snowdrifts were on its slope. Gulls swirled and shrieked, and packs of feral dogs trotted downslope. The black mountain was stark.
The soullessness is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby, the ash-grey men having been replaced by “dark brown men . . . hunched, caveman in a wasteland.” Urrea writes about thwarted ambitions and dashed dreams with honesty, and his portrayal of a holding pen for illegals and, later, a migrant camp of fruit pickers leave a lasting impression of acute desperation forged by poverty.
Dark, thin men stood staring at them. Smoke. The ground was muddy, darker than the men. Improvised tents were gathered in a rough U shape. Splintery poles propped up sheets of plastic. The fires in the small clearing held coffeepots on stones, frying pans. . . . They had managed to hammer together a little wooden shrine. It was lifted off the ground by a stout wooden pole. In it, covered by a shingle roof, standing on a small shelf, was a statue of the Blessed Mother.
As Nayeli and her friends make their way north of the border, they experience both cruelty and kindness. The viciousness of the white supremists that they encounter is sadly all too real, and the Urrea’s depiction of shadowy figures known as “ice zombies” evoke terror:
So racked with chemical poisons and dry rot that they didn’t even have shacks—they tipped sheets of plywood against headstones in the boneyard and slept and twitched right there in the dirt. . . . They stuck to the graves and the sad wire burners, and they shuffled out to the streets and mugged women coming home from work in the dark.
But all is not doom and gloom for the travelers. The friends have as many edifying adventures as mishaps on their journey, and their story is as much about personal self-awakening as it is about a quest to combat evil. Kindness comes from unexpected quarters and often from those that have nothing, as evidenced by Don Porforio and Doña Araceli, two car windshield washers who earn a daily wage of four dollars. Every evening they return to their shack beside “the dompe,” and when they stumble across Nayeli’s bedraggled group they do not hesitate to invite them to share their meager supper. Urrea’s brief portrait of the Mixtec Indian couple poignantly illustrates the resilience of so many of Mexico’s poor:
They gathered at the table and held hands. Porfirio was listing to port. Nayeli thought he’d fall over. But he smiled and tipped back his head and said, “Thank you, God!”
Two tears rolled down his face.
Although Urrea’s central characters all have a certain charm—sometimes irritatingly so—those that stand out are the misfits: Nayeli’s formidable Aunt Irma, a former bowling champ who is elected mayor of Tres Camarones and remains a devotee of Yul Brynner (who, she is convinced, is Mexican); Tacho, the gay proprietor of the taco shop, La Mano Caída (The Fallen Hand), who longs for love and to live his own version of city life; and Atómiko, a petty criminal with heroic aspirations to be the “Warrior of the Garbage-Dump.”
Into the Beautiful North loses some of its momentum when Nayeli and Tacho set off alone on the last leg of their journey across a huge swathe of the United States, but this brief misstep is corrected with the pair’s final, redemptive meeting with a border agent. Throughout the novel there is keen sense of nostalgia for a Mexico that has disappeared, and one senses Urrea’s regret for the simple rural life that has been usurped by the allure of the beautiful north. The migration of workers recalls a similar exodus of poverty-stricken farmers drawn to the supposed Eden of 1930s California in The Grapes of Wrath. Although both groups are disparaged for their endeavour and suffer hardship and disappointment at the end of their journeys, both also display an essential humanity and resilience of spirit. It’s hard not to feel an ache for their plight, yet Urrea’s ultimate message is a hopeful one.
Lucy Popescu’s most recent book is The Good Tourist, about human rights and ethical travel. She is the co-editor of Another Sky, an anthology featuring the work of writers that PEN has helped over the past forty years, and she worked with English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006. Popescu’s writing can also be found in Tribune magazine, The Guardian, and in her monthly column in Literary Review, “Silenced Voices.”
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