Friday, September 2, 2016

61 Books: #41

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–40 are below this post.

41. Luis Alberto Urrea, Into the Beautiful North (2009) (9/1/16)
This novel, about four young Mexicans who, inspired by the movie The Magnificent Seven, head to Los Yunaites to round up seven migrants/samurai to bring back home as protection against drug lords (in a nutshell), is an absolute delight. It's full of quirky, strong characters who do not hesitate to speak their mind while standing up to bandidos, coyotes, la migra, and white supremacists, and who appreciate with full heart every shred of kindness they encounter along their journey. Place is a character as well, as we journey through Mexico to San Diego, via the Tijuana dump, and then two of the protagonists take off on a cross-country trip to Kankakee, Illinois, drawn by a postcard the main character, Nayeli, received from her father many years before when he left to find work "in the beautiful north."

Urrea's descriptions are richly evocative. Here's home: "In an hour, they had come to the bend in the river where the boats could be beached and tied to bushes, and the party disembarked and grunted over the slope, breaking suddenly, amazingly, from jungly dark to a dazzling white cove that had at its center a wide oblong lagoon of brightest turquoise. Beyond the far end of the lagoon, the thundering surf of the deadly beach could be seen, dark ocean water exploding in spray and foam with a relentless basso roar. Everything seemed woven of purest sunlight. The coconut palms bobbed with their bright green harvests nestled among the silky-looking fronds. Beyond the coconuts, hibiscus trees stood twenty feet tall, burning with crimson blossoms. Little thatched huts sagged at jaunty angles, and Nayeli wasted no time getting to them, prying open their storage boxes, and unfurling the mesh hammocks stored inside. The breeze never stilled: miraculously, no one could tell how hot it was, or how humid. The faint whiffs of rotting porpoise occasionally spoiled the Edenic effect, but otherwise they had reached the most perfect spot in the world.
     "Irma said to María, her niece: 'Your husband should have come here before he left. He would have stayed home. ¡En México lindo!'
     "Nayeli's mother replied, 'You cannot eat beauty.' "

Here's Tijuana: "Down, into the hard dirt of Tijuana. Shacks and huts and scattered little cow farms gave way to small colonias and clutches of houses around gas stations and stores, and the road got bigger and fuller, and there were newer cars, and more of them. Trucks everywhere. They saw canals, and now the fences appeared as all trees vanished. They saw their first bridges. A prison. They plunged into the maw of the city—shantytowns surrounded the dusty center. Cars everywhere. Everyone stirred and craned, and Tacho nudged Nayeli and pointed, and she looked up at a dead hill across a tall fence where white trucks sat watching and a helicopter circled.
     "The USA didn't look as nice over there as it did on television."

But what makes this book move is the people. The dialogue sparkles with wit and levity, and not a little bit of Mexican slang. The various characters' thoughts and perceptions as they take on this new, not always so friendly country, pierce to the heart of the matter. There are the four main characters, Nayeli, the ringleader, Yoloxochitl, goth Verónica (or La Vampi), and gay Tacho, as well as Tía Irma, rooting them on from back home. We meet Matt the missionary; Chava Chavarín, a former bowling champion now turned janitor; Alex the Wizard; Mary Jo, the Kankakee librarian; and most colorfully, Atómiko, of the Tijuana dump, who wields a mighty stick. (In the reader's notes, Urrea explains that he would be the Toshiro Mifune character in the original Seven Samurai.) As they tackle their mission, we all learn a lot about perseverance, strength, the resilience of the human soul, and the saving grace of humor.

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