Into the Beautiful North

A Book Review

intothebeautifulnorthNayeli, a recent high school graduate who works at a taco shop/internet cafe in the tiny tropical town of Tres Camarones in Sinaloa, Mexico, arrives one day at a startling realization: there are no men in Tres Camarones. Her own father, formerly the only cop in town, left several years ago for the fabled United States, and so did all the others. Not only do Nayeli and her girlfriends have no one to date and eventually marry, but now they have no one to protect them from the bottom-feeding narcos and bandidos who, anxious for their own territory, have recently moved in on the remote, defenseless village. Watching The Magnificent Seven at the local movie house, Nayeli is inspired with the solution to the plight of Tres Camerones: she will travel North to “Los Yunaites” and round up her father and other able-bodied men to return to Mexico and save their village.  So, with support from the village, Nayeli and three friends begin their hilarious and harrowing journey through Mexico to Tijuana and eventually, hopefully, to the United States, where they expect to quickly enlist seven Mexican “soldiers and policeman” to repatriate and save their village in short order.

This book is at once a winning comedy and an epic adventure tale of a journey into mysterious, dangerous lands (such as Tijuana, Las Vegas, and the Colorado Rockies).  It is also injected with striking moments of social realism, depicting the poverty and desperation of both those who cross the borders and those who stay behind.  It provides a fascinating outsiders’ perspective on the United States as well as a Mexican perspective on border-crossing and immigration. Having read and loved several instances of Americans on adventures or misadventures in Mexico (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses / Border Trilogy and Kerouac’s On the Road), it was refreshing to read of Mexicans on an adventure in the exotic United States.

This story is filled to overflowing with endearing, memorable and quirky characters (examples: Nayeli’s formidable Aunt Irma, nicknamed La Osa (“the she-bear”), in her younger years a Mexican bowling champion, now running for mayor or Tres Camerones; and Atómiko, a self-made samurai warrior and superhero refuse picker of the Tijuana garbage dump who gives new meaning to “trash talk.”  The mood of much of this book is such that Jared Hess (writer/director of Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre) just might be an ideal choice as director of a film version.  Though the characters are amusing and likeable, many of them are a little bit one-dimensional.  The characters’ lack of depth holds the novel back from perfection, but is serviceable enough in a comedic adventure context.

Although marketed as an adult novel, the book might have great appeal to teenage readers because of the age and sentiments of its protagonists, its humorous and exciting storyline, and numerous youth culture references.  Indeed, I almost wonder if, had this been Urrea’s first novel, a publisher might have marketed it as a young adult book. The cover art, though tasteful, does not seem to properly represent the book’s lighthearted tone and contemporary, adventurous story, and was probably designed to visually tie the book to Urrea’s successful adult novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, which I have not yet read.  It appears as though, in attempting to market this book to Urrea’s existing literary audience, they may have missed out on a potential new and different audience in teenagers.  Furthermore, a quick survey of Internet reviews suggests that, because of this marketing misstep, some readers expecting “serious literature” have been turned off by the comedic elements and simple characterizations, two things that may actually work in its favor as a young adult book.  All in all, I think I would actually recommend this book first and foremost as a book for teenagers; it would be at home in contemporary YA literature.

[Note: the book does contain some explicit language and, of course, an irritating, not-really-necessary and not-entirely-condoned but nonetheless-apparently-obligatory-in-contemporary-literature sex scene. Unfortunately, it’s nothing out of the ordinary even for YA literature.]

In her search for heroes, Nayeli becomes the true heroine of the story, her journey rife with ordeals, excitement, distractions, and sorrows. She saves the mission and their lives on numerous occasions, and after trying the hard and dangerous way, always manages to find the help they need in the most unlikely of places and people.  The tragicomic, foreign, and fresh view of both Mexico and the U.S.A. that Urrea portrays through the journey of Nayeli and her companions will stay with the reader for a long time.  Four stars.

Into the Beautiful North: A Novel
written by Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company
342 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-02527-0
Release Date: May 19, 2009

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