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Book Review

John S. Christie

Book Review: Into the Beautiful North
by Luis Alberto Urrea


Luis Alberto Urrea has written another intriguing novel with characteristic humor, and deep sympathy for the characters he creates.  Inspired, he claims, in part, by eves-dropping on the conversations of his daughter and friends, Into the Beautiful North is dedicated to his daughter and there’s no doubt he meant the book for a younger generation of Latinas and Latinos.  It won’t come as a surprise to any reader that the north is hardly beautiful, and the title carries the ominous intimations of Krackaur’s  In the Wild.  There are echoes of the films “El Norte” and “Sin Nombre” and “Slumdog Millionaire” as well, and hundreds of places where our expectations as readers  are subverted because we wait for the bleak and violent, the gruesome and  the tragic yet the story goes elsewhere.   As the mainstream media floods its dwindling audiences with the fear of drug wars and diseases and poverty stricken desperation seeping over the border into the north, Urrea takes us in the opposite direction, toward an understanding of opposite perspectives, reversals of typical opinions.  The novel is an Odyssey where home is Mexico, the border, the underworld and the dangerous obstacles U.S. made. 

With all his expertise about Tijuana and the hardships of life in the garbage of the infamous Fausto Gonzalez landfill, we’d suspect a bloodly encounter for the naïve adventures, Nayeli and friends.  Instead we meet Don Porfirio, who looks down on the seagull infested “black mountain” and declares: “Home…from up there, you can see America.”  Looking down on America from the glorious mountain top of a mammoth dump.  Out of these  trash hills – and out of the mountain top cemetery with its open graves, comes the comical Quixote type hero, “El Atomiko,” a graphic novel fantasy, bizarre and completely unlike any urban hoodlum we’ve met before.   There’s a double edge to the simplest of descriptive passages in this book such as this one:

“They didn’t like all these newcomers who crowded their streets and brought dirt and panic…They suspected all crimes were inspired by these people. All drugs came with them. Old people remembered a day when you could leave your doors unlocked…When you knew all of your neighbors.  And everyone kept an eye out for one another. Not now, not with these aliens pouring in from everywhere.” 

Urrea is talking here, not about some gated community U.S. citizens; he’s talking about the “good citizens of Tiuana “hurrying on into their days” with no time to think about the border - “an abstraction to them at best.” 

The best of these sorts of comic reversals come on the Mexican side of the border.  Once into the “beautiful north” the novel travels across the US and the author can quietly and gently mock American culture from an outsider’s perspective.  And here again, at every moment the danger lurks, he steps away – however implausibly at times - so the story can continue without stereotypical tragic implications.  Unlike in Urrea’s more significant and more powerful earlier novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter  (see archives), the story, however, gets oversimplified and trivial.  In the effort to avoid the suspected ugly possibilities, the reader is always thinking lie just around the bend, Urrea  gets his characters out of numerous jams with unlikely, even cartoonish twists of plot.  The basic story line itself seems to fade away halfway through the book.    The “Travels with Tacho” section as the heroine and the gay restaurant owner, Tacho, tour the US in the search for Nayeli’s father is a series of observations highlighting the ridiculous vacuity of American culture:

“Neyeli observed the land in its splendor.

 7-Eleven, Subway. Motel 6.

7-Eleven. 24 Hr. Adult Superstore. 65 MPH.

7-Eleven. 29 Palms. Carl’s Jr.

70 MPH. Super 8. 7-Eleven” 

Other Chicano writers have dealt with the idea of a journey toward self recovery and the establishing of a true ethnic, cultural identity, but the pattern is usually about traveling south, toward the Mexican heritage and Latin American connections.  This book is about a Mexican girl traveling north to find herself and then a trip home again.  In some ways, readers will be reminded of Cristina Garcia’s Pilar from Dreaming in Cuban, because like Pilar, Nayeli is feisty and intelligent and truly likable, but Pilar travels south (in her case, Cuba), as do the heroes of most Chicano fiction.  Here, the quest itself is about going north (into the “belly of the beast” so to speak) in order to bring back men who have abandoned the little Mexican town of Tres Camerones.   The odyssey will take the young women to the underworld of the Tijuana slums, across the labyrinth of the border and into the complications and adventures of US prejudice and ignorance and then back home, warriors ready to battle the “bad men” like the four hobbits returning to the shire, like Odysseus against Penelope’s suitors, like the stars of the movie that reverberates throughout the novel: “The Magnificent Seven.”   In fact, the book should be a made into a movie soon, that is if the American public is ready for a film about Mexicans and illegal immigration that isn’t preoccupied with violence and blood, that instead satirizes both sides of the border with genuine sympathy and humor.   Late in the novel, a man in the hotel  - a place where Mexicans are actually welcomed – makes a point of turning off the TV when a scene comes on depicting Illegals climbing over the border like rats.  Urrea, it seems, is suggesting something similar – provoking readers to turn off the inaccurate portrayal of Mexicans as violent intruders.  The effect is a novel that is both light and humorous, and while not the dramatic statement this writer is capable of, at the same time thought provoking and well worth reading. 

John S. Christie is Co-Editor of Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature and the author of Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination.




Copyright 2006 design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie


Last Updated: August 30, 2009