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Review: Into the Beautiful North, Luis Alberto Urrea

Thanks to the flood of illegal immigrants into the US, small towns in Mexico are left with a lack of young men.  For Nayeli and her friends Yolo and Vampi, this is a serious problem, especially when banditos arrive in the town to scare the women. After watching the film The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides that she is going to go to the US, into the beautiful north, to find seven men to protect her town and revitalize the lives of the women therein.  Armed with cash, a pretty smile, and three friends, Nayeli heads off on a bus into a journey neither she nor I would have imagined.

With a few notable exceptions, novels set in Latin America tend to frustrate me.  Largely, this is because of the magical realism that many of those authors employ.  In general, I prefer novels to be either all fantasy or all real, but magical realism treads an uneasy line between the two, and for some reason I just don’t like it.  So when my online book club chose this novel for June, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to think of it.  In the end, I ended up on the edge myself between enjoying it and finding myself dissatisfied with it.

There are many things to enjoy in this novel.  Urrea’s writing is beautiful and evoked perfectly for me small-town Mexico, a garbage dump on the edge of the border, and American cities that I’ve never been to.  I was really moved by how difficult life is for illegal immigrants and how cruel the Border Patrol is towards them.  I’m not very comfortable with our stance towards illegal immigrants, although I don’t know how to fix it, so the struggles portrayed in the book really made me think about the problem.  It was interesting to see how in different locations, Mexicans are treated differently.  Lastly, there isn’t really much of that magical realism in this book.  Slightly unrealistic situations are portrayed but nothing that is actually impossible.  It still has a bit of that feel to it, but overall I was happy about this absence.

On the other hand, certain things bothered me about the book.  Nayeli’s journey seemed a little outrageous, especially given that the only threat was two men who refused to pay for their food.  We know that they are banditos because we are told, but they did not seem to be terrifying.  Other events in this book follow a similar unlikely pattern.  Some of the passages in the book are in Spanish, which I don’t speak, although I mostly skimmed them and tried to get the jist of the conversation.  Perhaps more fatally, I didn’t really understand or like many of the characters or their motivations.  I came closest to liking Nayeli, but then towards the end of the book she has an experience and reacts in a way that saddened me; I felt that for her, the journey was not fulfilling.  The secondary characters often irritated me; Nayeli’s friends are largely caricatures and it’s hard to feel that we know anything about them outside of their shell.  Even the missionary, Matt, was unappealing once we met him and seemed at total odds with the man all the girls had fallen in love with.

Despite all that, I did enjoy it.  I read it in a few hours between errands and never felt bored or that I wished I’d brought another book.  It was only afterwards that I began to feel uncertain about it and think through everything that I have mentioned.  I would still recommend it, especially if you like novels by other Latin American writers like Gabriel García Márquez.

Our book club discussion was really interesting.  More of us than I had expected felt lukewarm about the book; they didn’t like it, or they were like me and liked it but had some problems with it overall.  We were all most moved by the issue of illegal immigrants as portrayed by the book; some of us had heard about the garbage dumps and some of us had not.  A few of us were stymied by the way that people were able to recognize them as illegals; there are plenty of Latin Americans here legally and there is no real way to tell the difference.  We had a great discussion about it and I suspect other book clubs would too.

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