As we've said, a good road novel is essential to complete your summer reading. One we've enjoyed recommending this summer is Into the Beautiful North by the brilliant Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea. We chose it on the strength of Urrea's last novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter, a dense and beautiful Latin American saga that recalls the epic histories of Garcia Marquez. Picking up the new novel, we were prepared for a heavy, lyrical journey through decades of historical lore and the twisted limbs of a family tree. Instead we were surprised to find something much lighter, jauntier, and, dare we say, beachy — a robust beachy, let it be known. This is a spirited road novel with loads of humor, suspense, danger and passion. It provided one of those rare and wonderful experiences that all readers seek, a novel that catches you unaware, consumes you and refuses to release you until the story is gobbled up in a fit of flashing pages, neglected duties, ignored loved ones — the kind of book you insist everyone read behind you.
The action begins in the sleepy Mexican village of Tres Camarones on the Pacific coast. In this village, perhaps typical of rural Mexico, the men have all gone north to seek work in the U.S. Some write home and send money, while others simply disappear. Nineteen-year-old Nayeli has not heard from her father since his last postcard from the Midwestern U.S. many years ago. Meanwhile, menacing narco thugs are turning up in the village, hanging out at the taco stand where she works and plotting their nefarious schemes.
As things grow more dire in the village, Nayeli and some compadres, including several girlfriends and the flamboyant owner of the taco stand (La Mano Caida, or the Fallen Hand), head north to recruit a posse of men to come back and defend the village, in a scheme inspired by The Magnificent Seven, their favorite movie at the local cinema. With the help of a mysterious garbage dump-dwelling samurai, they embark on a dangerous border crossing at Tijuana with the hopes of finding the handsome young surfer missionary who once passed through their village, now reported to be in San Diego, and just maybe find Nayeli's father.
Into the Beautiful North is a completely entertaining tale, buoyant with vivid prose and dialogue, a brisk plot, and a unique take on the immigrant experience. But most impressive here are the characters, who are so lovable you'd attempt a treacherous border crossing with them, and possibly even take up with their posse out of wistful devotion.
Readers of one tongue may be put off by the Spanglish, but Urrea does a sly job of translating the playful phrasing, which gives the prose its multi-hued flair. The plot is so light and swift it won't matter. Just lie in the sun and let it whisk you away to a different place.
In the meantime, enjoy this clip from the author's website: