Jim's Reviews > Into the Beautiful North

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
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's review
Aug 13, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: expatriates, mundo-hispano, fiction, favorites
Read from July 14 to August 04, 2010

I'd previously known Luis Alberto Urrea work as a journalistic writer, who has produced several good books about life on the US-Mexican border. Turns out he's a pretty good novelist, too.

Nayeli lives in the village of Tres Camerones, where there are very few young men. (They've mostly gone north for work.) A drug gang has been nosing around the area, seeing it as a potential place to expand operations. After watching the movie The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli gets the idea to go north and hire men, her own siete magnificos to save her town. She also hopes to find her father. The last contact from him is a crumpled postcard sent from Kankakee, Illinois. She and her companions make a trip to the United States that is part El Norte, part Don Quixote.

This is a very good, character-driven story. I was especially drawn to Nayeli. Urrea manages to cast her as both tough and open to the wonders of the wider world, she has a schoolgirl crushes and a black belt in karate. I also liked Tacho, Nayeli's gay boss; their relationship is very funny and tender. But the most entertaining character in the book is the slum-dweller Atomiko, a deserter from the Mexican army. In true quixotic fashion, he recreates himself as a samurai, armed with a wicked, metal-bound staff.

Together, they encounter the US Border Patrol (sympathetically portrayed), skinheads (scumbags), and the great big, bewildering, wonderful, frustrating United States ("the beautiful North").

I like the various cultural points are interconnected in this book. The movie The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Akiro Kurasawa's Seven Samurai, which was itself an homage to the American Western. Atomiko's samurai lifestyle is inspired by seeing the Kurasawa movie Yojimbo. The spirit of Miguel Cervantes lies behind the story. Before she leaves, Nayeli's aunt gives her a copy of Don Quixote, which she doesn't read. Nayeli's maternal family name is Cervantes. The main characters of the novel, like Cervantes's knight of La Mancha, are all engaged in a quest of self-definition.

I loved this book. It was bittersweet and charming, and it kicked ass.

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