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Review of Into the Beautiful North

Into the Beautiful North
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown & Co., 2009

Luis Alberto Urrea, in a relatively short publishing career (his two previous books, Hummingbird’s Daughter and Devil’s Highway, each sold unexpectedly well), has developed a fervent fan base. Testimonials to the ability of his stories to move and inspire aren’t limited to his readers alone: this is an author about whom his publicist can write such a disarmingly sincere line as, “On the gray days when I wonder why I do what I do, I see Luis Urrea’s work on my shelf, and it all makes sense again.”

The jaded reaction to all this is predictable: specialty, ethnic, or niche publishing always tends to attract fanatical – and vocal – believers, so such clamor can’t be taken at face value. There’s an assumption here that a gay novelist or a Black novelist or, in Urrea’s case, a Latino novelist doesn’t have to work as hard as a more mainstream writer to gain an equal or greater measure of acclaim. Although this assumption is equally insulting to both niche novelist and mainstream writer, it’s not always wrong. If Stephen King had spent his life writing novels of suburban unrest in which there were no Satanic leaf-blowers or possessed possums, it’s doubtful he’d be the owner of Vancouver Island, as he’s rumored to be today.

But in Urrea’s case, and especially in the case of his latest novel, the luminous and richly uplifting Into the Beautiful North, the jaded reaction has everything wrong: this is a strong, sensitive, wonderful novel, one richly deserving of the wide success I predict it will enjoy.

It’s the story of 19-year-old Nayeli, who lives in the village of Tres Camarones and works at The Fallen Hand Café and Internet Café for her blustering, big-hearted boss Tacho. In Tres Camarones most of the men have gone to the North to find work and not returned – including Nayeli’s father, about whom she has many dreams and few illusions. Bad men (Urrea’s villains are delightfully, unapologetically one-dimensional) are circling Tres Camarones, and Nayeli, no less than her boss, is always dreaming of escape:

Tacho and Nayeli shared a lust for big cities – any big cities. They used the computer to spy on New York, London, Madrid, Paris. Sometimes, after work, they climbed on the roof of the restaurant to watch the bats. They made believe the clouds were the Manhattan skyline.

It isn’t long before Nayeli and Tacho and a few others have concocted a plan to travel north themselves – Nayeli ostensibly in search of her father, but all of them really in search of more fulfilling lives than they could ever have in Tres Camarones. Although the girl is the star of the novel, readers may well remember Tacho – one of the most convincingly portrayed fictional gay men in recent memory – more vividly. The casual humiliations he undergoes at the hands of various police and border guards leave him shaken and test his mettle in ways Nayeli herself, oddly enough, seldom experiences except second-hand:

Twenty miles outside of Mexicali, the hydraulic system broke on the bus, and they rolled backward to the edge of a precipice but did not go over. After trying to get the doors open for an hour, Chuy kicked out one of the windows and dropped to the ground. He began walking toward civilization in the dark. Cold wind came in the open window. Nayeli cradled Tacho’s head in her lap. She could feel his silent tears on her thigh. She could hear coyotes howling outside. All around her, the travelers snored and coughed and cried out in their worried dreams.

Urrea brings his story to America, and he then brings it back to Tres Camarones, and readers who take this round trip will be glad they did. As great a pleasure as it is getting to know these characters, it’s an even greater pleasure getting to know Urrea himself, as he methodically matures into a truly formidable crafter of sunny fiction. You can almost hear the note of tested triumph in the poetic injunction that opens Into the Beautiful North (taken from the 15th century Aztec poet Xayacamach of Tizatlan):

O friends, I have come searching for you.

I crossed over flowing fields,

And here, at last, I’ve found you.
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Rejoice.

Tell me your stories.
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O friends, I am here.

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