Into the Beautiful North

May 6, 2009

Another review of mine (though pretty heavily edited)  is up on Boldtype.

“The border runs down the middle of me,” Luis Alberto Urrea, the son of a Mexican cop and a New York socialite, once claimed. This physical and psychological “border” also divides Urrea’s newest novel, Into the Beautiful North, into two parts — Sur and Norte — turning a whimsical coming-of-age travel story into an exploration of transnational migration.

The story begins as a group of shady bandidos starts harassing people in the tiny Mexican village of Tres Camarones. With all the town’s men off working in the US — including the only cop — 19-year-old Nayeli is forced to come up with her own plan of defense. After seeing The Magnificent Seven at the local theater, she decides to go to the US to recruit seven Mexican men to come back and defend the town. The journey takes Nayeli, her two angsty girlfriends, and her gay boss out of their isolated village and into the swirling chaos of the US/Mexico border, where they encounter many of the characters from Urrea’s award-winning nonfiction — predatory Mexican police, US Border Patrol agents, glue-sniffing street kids, menacing coyotes. But amid these devilish sorts, there is also an element of absurdity, most notably in Atómiko, the staff-wielding, pole-vaulting superhero from the Tijuana trash dumps who joins their bumbling gang.

Despite the misogynistic overtones (i.e., the women in the village need their men to save them), Into the Beautiful North is a valuable addition to the growing body of border literature. Urrea touches on many tensions that affect people on both sides of the fence — from the effects of migration on families to the decidedly un-Hollywood reality of arriving in the US — while imbuing the story with a touch of the fantastical. The result is an exceptional tale that transposes the polarizing discourse of immigration politics with a rambunctious adventure that shows there is still some magic left in our troubled world.


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