Once a month or so, I read books that are not my usual cup of tea. Or books that I THINK won’t be my usual cup of tea. Like this month’s book club pick (for my well-read, literary ladies book club, not the big, famous, online sci-fi/fantasy one), which I lagged on until last night and didn’t finish until this afternoon and, in the end, turned out to totally be my thing. It’s too bad I couldn’t finish it before my monthly book club meeting and, therefore, couldn’t discuss it with the ladies.
Today’s featured book: Into The Beautiful North, by Luís Alberto Urrea (I had to look up the alt-keys for that í, ’cause I can never remember alt-key sequences).
Format I consumed it in: E-book, from the library where I work.
The premise: The fictional Mexican town of Tres Camarones has a problem: aside from a few old men, the rest of the male population has left to find work somewhere up north, the price of produce keeps increasing ’cause all the good produce gets sold to the United States, or “los Yunaites”, as the characters refer to us as, and a couple of banditos (really more like armed thugs) have taken over. The protagonist, pretty, curvy, “smiley” Nayeli, a waitress at the local taquería, La Mano Caída, and niece to the town’s new mayor, Irma– also known as la osa— attends a movie screening of The Magnificent Seven and is inspired to set out “into the beautiful north” to find 7 warriors to help drive the bandits out of town and help repopulate Tres Camarones. On the way, she also hopes to find her father, who’s been MIA for a while, and whose last correspondence came from a place called Kankakee, Illinois. Nayeli enlists the help of her boss/gay best friend, Tacho, and her two best female friends, Yolo and Veronica, a goth chick who goes by “La Vampira”/”La Vampi”. Irma and the townswomen “sponsor” the group by giving them their cash savings to help them on their quest. The naive, enthusiastic foursome head towards Tijuana and the border and are forced to deal with many unexpected (on their part, anyway) hardships along the way, including the loss of their luggage, unsanitary living conditions, the border patrol, etc. They meet many unsavory characters, but also many surprisingly considerate and helpful people.
My thoughts: I LOVE this book. It’s like watching a Tarantino film (Tarantino is my favorite director). I did read the little blurb about it before I started, so I knew that it would be more of an adventure story than just a boring ol’ “slice of life” kind of thing, but I didn’t think it would be funny or anything. A couple pages in, I already found it incredibly amusing, and at that point, I knew it would be an enjoyable read, even if didn’t turn out to be award-winning material. Some of the reviews I’ve read complain that Into the Beautiful North isn’t as good as some of Urrea’s previous books. Maybe? I wouldn’t know– this was my first exposure to Urrea’s work. If his other books are as funny as this, but more well-written, better-plotted, more emotional, whatever, then they must be amazing books. I don’t care that there weren’t any super moving scenes in this book (mostly because it’s told in a way that feels almost satirical)– I thought it did a pretty good job pointing out a bunch of problems with society, the way refugees are treated, the way migrants are treated, the U.S.’s handling of “the Mexico situation”, cultural differences, class systems, etc. etc., without ever getting that deep or that serious. Perhaps that’s why some people didn’t like it as much. ITBN mocks almost everything and laughs at whatever it can. Kind of my own outlook on life, so the irreverence and humor worked for me. The characters are WEIRD, and while some may complain that too often, that weirdness is what’s used to define them and not much else, I thought that approach worked in this case. They are unforgettable, quite simply put. I also loved reading Urrea’s descriptions of and portrayal of the United States, especially my beloved San Diego, from the POV of small-town Mexican visitors who have never seen it before, except in movies. It helped me fall in love with my country and its beauty and idiosyncrasies again.
Some of my favorite things: Aunt Irma and her overconfidence and ambition; the Border Patrol’s reactions to Nayeli’s story about why she crossed the border and how she wants to go back after she completes her mission; Tacho– his sarcasm, his cynicism, his loyalty; Nayeli’s personality and the fact that she is good at karate and actually uses it to get out of some tough situations; how the working class living situations that some of the San Diego residents are ashamed of seem like wealth and livin’ the good life to the visitors from Mexico; Nayeli’s random encounter with the white fisherman in the mountains; how Kankakee, which I’d never heard of before this, turns out to be a welcoming place, with a super helpful and kind librarian (YAY!) who helps them out.
My rating: 5/5. Please go read it.