Monday, February 20, 2012

Into the Beautiful North

By Luis Alberto Urrea
New York, Back Bay Books, 2009
338 pages    Fiction

All the men are gone from the small fishing village village of Tres Camarones in Sinaloa Mexico—gone to  Los Yunaites (The United States). Nayeli and the other young women in the town acutely realize that there are no young men for them, and after watching the Western, The Magnificent Seven several times in the village’s movie theatre, Nayeli decides to make a romantic quest to the United States to bring back seven strong Mexican men to marry the young women and protect their town from the drug traffickers who are moving in. Perhaps she will even be able to bring home her father, who has gone to Kankakee Illinois. Encouraged by her aunt Tia Irma, the village’s new mayor, she embarks on her journey, accompanied by two girlfriends and the young gay owner of the taco stand where she works. 

The first half of Into the Beautiful North takes the travelers as far as Tijuana. The second half gets them to Kankakee and home again. Along the way, they experience humiliation, deprivation, and severe complications. But at the same time, they have moments of hope and inspiration. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that the travelers can depend on “the kindness of strangers.” Two beggars in Tijuana house them. Atomiko, one of modern literature’s truly great characters, becomes their defender. A fisherman gives Nayeli a sweatshirt to warm her and a truck driver offers her a fresh mango. A former missionary houses them in San Diego. The kindnesses are accepted with the same sense of inevitability as the misfortunes. 

The book is filled with so many funny characters and so many funny situations and so many funny sentences that my attempt to catalog them for this review totally failed. There was too much that was laugh out loud funny. One of my favorite passages is a poignant look at the homeland by an immigrant who has lived in the United States too long. “He realized there was no one in Los Yunaites who could transport him so easily to Tres Camarones, the Camarones that throbbed in his mind every night, the old world that would not let him sleep, that would not allow him to read a book or watch a movie. . .In Camarones, he had been a fire on two legs, he had been a human waltz and a walking tango, he had brought music and cologne into the plazuela on each humid mysterious love-scented Saturday night.“

I particularly liked the character of Nayeli. She is strong and vibrant, committed to her mission to bring her father and seven other men home to her village. She is not about to get distracted from her quest. That gives her a unique voice, and she becomes a terrific foil for the other more ridiculous characters. That is not to say that she is shallow; she is the glue that holds the entire enterprise together.
If this were a movie, it would be a quest or road trip movie with the usual set of unlikely companions. But Urrea weaves much more into the story—the despair of small Mexican towns; the bravado of men and women who have seen too many old movies; the desperate situation at the border for people on both sides and the American anger over the constant influx of Mexicans. Add to that the remarkable set of fully-realized characters and you have an incredibly readable and rollicking romp through the eyes of a Quixote-like young woman. One reviewer says, “There are misfortunes, but this is a comedy and the suspense, adventure, and resolved hardships are in service of an exuberant escape and a happy ending.”

Into the Beautiful North is the 2012 Reading Together book sponsored by the Kalamazoo Public Library. It is an interesting choice because while it is a book about immigration, it is not overtly so, and usually the book the community chooses to read is a message book of some sort. This one is just too funny.  Among the activities being planned is a screening of The Magnificent Seven with Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner.  One of the running jokes in the book is whether or not Yul Brynner is Mexican.  It should probably be followed by one of my favorite movies, The Three Amigos with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. 

Luis Urrea is a professor at The University of Illinois, Chicago and will be in Kalamazoo to speak on March 6. My book club read Into the Beautiful North and will be at the lecture. The publisher has sent me Urrea’s newest book Queen of America, which I will be reviewing next week. 

Urrea’s website:


Anonymous said...

Hi in Mxico is Tres Camarones a real place?

Anonymous said...

Thank you