I am one of those ardent Luis Urrea fans who has been waiting impatiently for the sequel to his gorgeous novel The Hummingbird's Daughter -- and I was initially dismayed when I read on his blog that another novel had sprung to life in his head, compelling him to put the sequel aside. So I picked up Into the Beautiful North grumbling, "this better be good."
It's better than good -- it's fabulous. What's not to love with a vibrant cast of characters, bitterweet and hilarious all at once, an epic road trip (Urrea's descriptions of Mexican and North American landscapes are superbly evocative), a plot that is surprising and full of purpose, and a heroine worthy of the journey.
The small town of Tres Camarones in Sinaloa has lost all of its eligble men through immigration to the north, leaving behind a village of women, children, and restless teenage girls. Nayeli and her girlfriends Yolo and Vampi (a goth girl named Veronica who listens to obscure goth bands and introduces herself as a vampire) wile away their time looking with longing at the world on a computer in a makeshift internet cafe and at the odd assortment of dubbed movies shown at Cine Perdo Infante. When a pair of petty drug lords move into the village and threaten the peace of the town, even that vicarious life gets taken from them. While at a showing of the film The Magnificent Seven, the western re-make of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Nayeli becomes convinced that to save Tres Camerones, she must journey north, find her father and seven Mexican warriors, and bring them home to do battle with the banditos.
It is a journey not lightly undertaken and it involves perilous risks: the dangerous city of Tiajuana, the terrifying attempts to cross the border -- and once on the other side -- the arduous journey from California to Illinois where Nayeli hopes to find her long lost father. Accompanying her are loyal cohorts Yolo and Vampi, and Tacho, the only gay man in Tres Camarones. Of course there are adventures and misadventures but the sheer vitallity and passion of the girls sustains them through disasters, imprisonments, separations, and reunions, (not to mention entanglements with men they meet along the way). And they are funny as hell to boot. Urrea has his ear so well tuned to the banter of teenage girls amid their sulks, their dramas, and their joy. They hold the novel together like a sweet filling in a rich cake you can't stop eating.
Of course the novel touches on immigration -- and there are poignant moments, highlighting the desperation, the fear, and the shame of the relentless routine of crossing, returning, and re-crossing the border. But the novel also lays claim to the determination and hope of coming home for good, of rediscovering one's country and one's identity. Nayeli's heroism is directed toward saving the town she loves as well as her own future in Mexico.
The novel has a great deal of fun with the way in which movies contribute to a global pop culture that touches even those in a remote Mexican town. In Tres Camerones, they argue over who is the more manly, Yul Brenner or El Estip McQueen? The girls debate the merits of Johnny Depp as a future boyfriend, and in Tiajuana they meet Atómiko, a gangly young man living in Tiajuana's infamous dump who has modeled himself after Kurosawa's ronin warrior Yojimbo. When Nayeli and Tacho drive across country they sign into hotels under the names of famous movie stars as well as Mexican politicians.
Have a look at this wonderful little video of Urrea talking about the novel and treat yourself to a peek at the first few chapters using the Open Book link down below.