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Into the Beautiful North

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Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the United States to find work. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn't the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village--they've all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men--her own "Siete Magníficos"--to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.

Filled with unforgettable characters and prose as radiant as the Sinaloan sun, Into the Beautiful North is the story of an irresistible young woman's quest to find herself on both sides of the fence.

343 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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About the author

Luis Alberto Urrea

51 books2,214 followers
Luis Alberto Urrea is the award-winning author of 13 books, including The Hummingbird's Daughter, The Devil's Highway and Into the Beautiful North (May 2009). Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother, Luis has used the theme of borders, immigration and search for love and belonging throughout his work. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 (nonfiction), he's won the Kiriyama Prize (2006), the Lannan Award (2002), an American Book Award (1999) and was named to the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. He is a creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and lives with his family in the 'burbs (dreaming of returning West soon!).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,438 reviews
Profile Image for Brina.
904 reviews4 followers
May 24, 2016
4.5 stars

The majority of people view the United States as the land of opportunity and would risk their lives to enter the country either legally or illegally. Just try telling that to the people of Tres Camarones, Michoacan, Mexico. The male population has all left for the states to find work leaving the town with the elderly, women, and children born before the men bolted.
It is in this context that we meet Nayeli Cervantes. At nineteen and one year removed from being a high school futbol star, she finds herself working with Tacho at the town's only restaurant La Mano Caida. Most of her friends have moved on to the university leaving her, Yoloxochitl (Yolo), and Veronica (Vampi) behind. With no social life and no future, life moves slowly in Tres Camarones, unless one counts campaigning for Irma Garcia Cervantes, the former bowling champion, for mayor as having a social life.
One weekend two events take place that set the novel in motion. The town goes crabbing and while in the water Nayeli and Yolo try to think who is pregnant. There is no one. The next night the town theater La Cine Pedro Infante shows The Magnificent Seven a film about seven warriors who will do anything to protect their town. And that is when Nayeli has her idea- she and the other two girls will go north to Los Unaites (the United States) to recruit the seven warriors to return to Tres Camarones to help protect and repopulate their village. With Irma's blessing and with assistance from the town gay Tacho as their traveling companion, the girls set off on an epic journey.
Along the journey to recruit the magnificent seven we meet a memorable cast of characters to counter the three girls. First we meet Atomiko the samurai warrior who lives in the junk yards of Tijuana. A former soldier in the Mexican army stationed across the border, he was caught without papers and deported. He feels his lot in life is to protect his trash piles, that is until the girls arrive and he gets enticed by their plans. After finally arriving in San Diego illegally, the girls and Tacho find Mateo the missionary, Alex the goth, and Chava Chavarin the former conquistador of Tres Camarones. Chava along with Irma becomes the mastermind of the plan while Nayeli recruits Tacho to help her find her father all the way in Kankakee, Illinois, a world away.
Throughout the course of the novel, Urrea addresses the treatment of illegal immigrants in the US while also showing the way legal immigrants view their illegal counterparts. Additionally, he writes a few chapters in the point of view of border patrol agents who work tirelessly to keep out most illegals. At the end of the day despite their best intentions, Nayeli and company are illegals and met either with dirty looks or violent interchanges for most of their time in the states. It is of little wonder to me that they would rather return to and boost the way of life in Trea Camarones.
I found Urrea's tale refreshing. I have read many novels and nonfiction books about the immigrant experience and the struggle these new Americans have to better their lives in their new country. Into the Beautiful North focuses on the old country in this case Mexico and the life left behind. Tres Camarones is like any small town where everyone knows everyone else and small events like screenings at a movie theater become whole town events. All the citizens want is to better their day to day living and in the case of Nayeli and friends, to have an opportunity to marry and repopulate their village. An epic tale that focuses on the immigrant experience on both sides of the border, I highly recommend this to all, and am looking forward to reading his Pulitzer winning The Devil's Highway as well as his other books.
Profile Image for Lorna.
683 reviews366 followers
July 25, 2022
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea was a book that I knew I had to read. My first introduction to Luis Alberto Urrea was his wonderful fictional narrative, The House of Broken Angels, and I became enchanted with this marvelous author and I have been gravitating towards his many works, both fiction but riveting nonfiction as well. This was a delightful fictional narrative as well as most important work about the flow of people over the Mexican-United States border over the years and all of the emotions and trauma and danger that is inherent in this border crossing. I found this a very unique perspective as a witness to the perils of this crossing of these beautiful people that I had become so bonded with from the Mexican village, Tres Camarones in Sinaloa.

"True, the occasional hurricane devastated the lowlying forest and semitropical jungle and reformed the beaches. Often, parts of the town were washed away or carried out to sea. But the interior clock of evolution in Tres Camarones was set only to these cataclyms of nature."

And of course at the heart of this tale is the delightful and enigmatic nineteen year old Nayeli works at a taco shop as she dreams about finding her father, treasuring a postcard received many years ago from Kankakee, Michigan as he went to the United States to find work. We witness her life-changing impact from the movie The Magnificent Seven as this young girl decides that she is on a quest to bring back seven young men to fortify their town, in particular Yul Brenner. As we look at the village in Sinoloa that Nayeii lives where career opportunities are limited to subsistence farming and fishing with the added problem of drug dealers muscling into the village. It is time for Nayeii and her quest to restore her village. This is a book that I loved as it gives another perspective and dimension to our border with Mexico and all of the human stories that it contains.

"It shook her, this place. It was awful. Tragic. Yet. . . it moved her. The sorrow she felt. It was profound. It was moving, somehow. The sorrow of the terrible abandoned garbage dump and the abandoned garbage dump and the sad graves and the lonesome shacks made her feel something so far inside herself that she could not define it or place it. She was so disturbed that it gave her the strangest comfort, as though something she had suspected about life all along was being confirmed, and the sorrow she felt in her bed at night was reflected by this soil."

"Suddenly, a mayfly hatch burst out of the gorge. Millions of mayflies. Gold, shimmering, they rose from the water of the Colorado in swirls, wafting like metallic snow blowing up into the sky, silent. Nayeii could not stop laughing. 'Look how beautiful!' she cried. 'This is some kind of sign. No? God making a miracle for us."
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,470 reviews565 followers
January 12, 2019
[4+] The premise of Into the Beautiful North is far-fetched - a young woman from a small Mexican village, inspired by the movie "The Magnificent Seven" decides to go to the US to recruit some men to protect her town. Yet Urrea makes it work. I was enthralled with Nayeli and her crew's journey north. Urrea's writing and the wonderfully narrated audiobook felt cinematic. I could see the scenes unfold - as a movie it would be an adventure/comedy or a road trip caper. Yes, it is a bit formulaic but I didn't care!

The novel is upbeat and hopeful but also touches on racism, sexism, anti-gay and anti-immigration sentiments. Published a decade ago, it is a timely read in January 2019 as our government is held hostage by Trump's sick dreams of "The Wall."
Profile Image for Emily.
172 reviews198 followers
January 13, 2011
After the density of Mary Wollstonecraft and the heaviness of Mariama Bâ (to be reviewed shortly), I was in the mood for something a little light, a little frothy, with a decided sense of humor. I've seen some reviews around the blogosphere critiquing Luis Alberto Urrea's Into the Beautiful North—a quest story about three teenage Mexican girls and their gay male friend who sneak across the US/Mexican border in order to fetch back some Mexican men to repopulate their threatened town—for being lighter than expected, so I thought it might be a good match with my current mood. And indeed, I gobbled it up in three sittings, leaving not even enough time to substitute a real bookmark for the miniature subway map I grabbed hastily to mark my place. This is a novel that verges on many traps that annoy me: the quirky (overly quirky?) cast of characters, the topical references and subject matter, the heartwarming (unrealistically heartwarming?) themes and emphasis on romantic coupling toward the end—and yet, I thought it did a remarkably good job of steering clear of schmaltz and delivering a solid, entertaining tale with some thoughtful political observations thrown in for good measure.

Some reviewers have likened Into the Beautiful North to a fairy-tale, and the comparison is apt. This is no gritty portrait of hardship at the Mexican/American border, but a modern-day version of the romantic quest narrative: a fact several characters within the novel explicitly acknowledge. So, although the world depicted is not without danger, and the characters certainly feel real fear, the overall vibe is that sneaking across the border is a rollicking adventure, rather than an act of economic desperation. Protagonist Nayeli and her friends entertain passing fears of rapists in Tijuana, for example, but nobody actually comes close to injuring them—in part because of Nayeli's skills in self-defense, but also because most of the people they meet are genuinely good folks. They stay with some people who live in a garbage dump, but the dump-dwellers actually seem quite happy and comfortable. The coyote who leads them across the border is perhaps a bit shady, but only enough to provide atmosphere, not in a seriously threatening way. Nayeli and her friends fear the US Immigration agents, but those guys turn out to be basically good sorts as well. They do have to navigate racism and anti-immigration vitriol, but the narrative mitigates the harshness of these things by allowing the characters the refuge of each others' giddy, empowered camaraderie. It allows them, for example, to stand up for themselves and each other very effectively against white aggressors, without then being punished by the entrenched racism of the justice and economic systems the way they would be in, for example, a Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison novel.

I think Urrea succeeds in this perhaps unrealistically sunny worldview because his book never takes itself too seriously. Whereas the quirk and topicality factors in Middlesex hit all my annoyance buttons because I felt like it was trying too hard, Into the Beautiful North acted on me like that goofy friend at whom I just can't get mad, even at his most ridiculous. In addition to the semi-allegorical framework surrounding the book's events, there was also Urrea's delightful sense of humor, which really was the highlight of the novel, and coincidentally exactly what was missing from my reading life at the moment.

       The ZZs were her favorites, and even when Matt had gone missionary on her, run off to Mexico to save the Mexicans, the ZZ Twins had hung around her house, keeping her company in his absence, keeping the bad guys at bay. They spoke that weird surfer talk that she had never quite translated. Once, when she'd asked Zemaski how he was feeling, he said, "I'm creachin' the bouf."

       She had laughed for weeks about that one.

       Two years later, she'd been hunting through the library's cast-off $1.00 sale table when she glanced at their computers and ventured to access the Internet. The librarian helped her search the phrase "creachin' the bouf." The best translation they could come up with was "I am a fool for the light comedic opera." She liked to think that's what Zemaski meant, though she knew it wasn't.

I quite like this little anecdote: I like her observant amusement, even in the midst of the tinge of melancholy surrounding the departure of her son and in that final "though she knew it wasn't." (Like Ma Johnston, I attempted to Google "creachin' the bouf," but couldn't figure out what it means either.)

Another unexpected pleasure about Into the Beautiful North lies in its politics: because it's so light-hearted, I think, it can get away with a level of political topicality that would feel unpleasantly preachy in a different context. In particular, Urrea includes multiple scenes underlining the fact that as the United States is to Mexico (economic oppressor, supposed land of opportunity), so is Mexico to many South- and Central-American countries. The same kind of familiar race-based vitriol thus exists on both sides of the border:

       "These beans are grown here in Sinaloa," he said proudly. "The best frijoles in the world! Right near Culiacán. Then they're sold to the United States. Then they sell them back to us." He shrugged. "It gets expensive."

       Tía Irma took a long time to replace the glasses in the purse.

       "That," she finally proclaimed, "is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to me."

       He smiled, hoping she would not strike him with that purse.

       "NAFTA," he said.

       Irma stormed out of the stall and spied a Guatemalan woman picking through the spoiled fruit.

       "What are you doing? she snapped.

       "Provisions. For the journey north," the woman replied. She made the mistake of extending her hand and saying, "I have come so far, but I have so far to go. Alms, señora. Have mercy."

       "Go back where you came from!" Irma bellowed. "Mexico is for Mexicans."

Similarly, when Mexican border agents board a bus traveling from Sinaloa to Tijuana (toward the US/Mexican border), the Mexicans joke freely about being "wetbacks when we get to the border," but a pair of illegal Colombian immigrants are manhandled off the bus and deported. Urrea takes the consistent line that the immigration hardships of the inter-Americas are caused by a broken system, and that the vast majority of individuals from any of the countries involved are decent people doing their best. Even when Nayeli and her friends are genuinely hurt by people calling them out on their illegal status (such as a pair of legal Mexican immigrants who run a diner), those people are usually presented as coming from a place of decency and honesty themselves. I appreciated this stance and agree with it in general, even if I felt the book did skate over some of the uglier, more insidious results of this kind of discrimination. This is particularly easy to do since Nayeli and company are on a transitory journey, not attempting to live long-term in the US. Ugly encounters may be scary or sad for them in the short term, but the little band never sticks around long enough to be worn down by the experience of living on the outskirts of an unwelcoming society.

But more than a political treatise, Into the Beautiful North is just a funny, effervescent little book, and one that lightened up my otherwise rather heavy January reading schedule.
Profile Image for Karina.
823 reviews
November 25, 2019
Loved this book from beginning to end. Urrea has a way with storytelling that really talks to me. He is like the Spanish version of Larry McMurtry, for me...

The story is almost impossible from the beginning but the characters find a way to get around all the harshness life has thrown at them; from Tres Camarones to Tijuana to San Diego.

When the bandidos start trying to take over Tres Camarones, Sinaloa, Nayeli has to find a way to save her town from these mafiosos. After watching Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli with friends in tow go in search of strong men to defend the women in her town; the men that have abandoned them to work in The Yunaites Estays, especially her long gone father in Illinois. Through many errors, failures, and savagery they manage to make it. People in the United States are racist, kind, mean, giving.

The story gets funny and sad and funnier with a bit of darkness. I liked all the characters and their bravado. Their hopes and dreams made me smile.

I look forward to reading all Urrea's novels. He inspires me with imagination for my beloved countrymen.
Profile Image for Dingleberry.
46 reviews4 followers
January 25, 2015
I have to say this is one of the most joyful books I've ever read. Also, don't be worried about half of it being in Spanish: there are subtitles and you're smart. You can guess.

That said, I think I found the soul of feminism in this book: women who organize a mission to find men (literally) - to save their man-starved city. For those of us who have always considered immigration a one-sided "problem," here is the other side - entire cities stripped of adult male populations gone on into the US to find jobs and sometimes entire second families, ditching the first in traditional homes, waiting. Or worse, of course.

What if those traditional women realized that in the years since their men deserted them, they've evolved? They've gotten jobs and challenged authority and won. What if they held auditions for the men who will live among them?

Welcome to Into the Beautiful North.

I'm trying not to spew spoilers here, but when you handle this book, think of a cross between a teenage ensemble film (anything with three or four female friends, the girls do tend to get a bit stereotypical) and Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. There's romance, adventure, road-chronicles, fighting, racism, helpfulness in the face of racism, the tribulations of being gay in a traditional Mexican village, sisterhood, betrayal, and I don't think there was a single unexciting page. This was a *novel.* It was amazing.

As a bonus, it's gay-friendly: it's one of the first books I've met with a believable gay character. And despite one brief sex scene, I would call this one appropriate for ages 16 and up. Absolutely a must-read.
Profile Image for Shawn Thrasher.
1,808 reviews43 followers
March 23, 2015
This is an incredible novel, with an animated plot and memorable characters that will stick with you long after you turn the last page. Urrea uses The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai as a mold of sorts, but if anything it's an old-fashioned mid-century jello mold, where he mixes all sorts of strange fruits and meats into the lime green wonderfulness to create something unusual and beautiful. He flips gender on it head and pokes holes in stereotypical Mexican machismo (our heroes are a kick-ass girl and a hot, tough gay guy). He compares and contrasts American culture and Mexican culture and Mexican American culture. Nothing is simple here - the black hats aren't necessarily the bad guys - or maybe they just aren't the worst guys. And the good guys have sharp edges with shadows - their hats are really gray (but don't we all wear gray hats). Nayeli, our heroine, has two guys in her life who will do anything for her, and quite frankly both of them steal whatever scenes they are in. They are completely original characters. Tacho, a sassy, mature-before-his-time gay guy in a small village who has become tough - but underneath the bitchery lies love and heroics; and romantic, sloppy modern day ronin Atómico, who lives in a dump and wields a sword for love and freedom. I can't decide who I ended up being in love with more. I wept at the end of this book; which to me, is the ultimate sign of greatness - but I laughed too. This isn't a downer; it's clever and humorous and really fun.

I've now read this twice, and enjoyed it as much the second time as the first. Incredible book!
Profile Image for Debbie Zapata.
1,790 reviews37 followers
February 23, 2023
Sep 25, 11am ~~ Review asap.

1pm ~~ Loved this book about Nayeli and her friends on a quest to bring home the men who left their pueblo in Sinaloa for the USA. Nayeli mainly wants to find her father, gone for three years and living in Kankakee Illinois, according to the last post card she got from him. Would he still be there? Do Nayeli and her friends have the courage to face the unknown and go looking for him?

They do have the courage. It is a adventure! A lark! A quest! But a lot of things happen that show them how the world away from their pueblo actually works.

"Riotously funny...A Wonderfully entertaining novel." ~~ David HIltbrand, Philadelphia Enquirer

That comment is from the back cover of my edition. And I do agree with the essence of it. But this book also has serious themes lurking to ambush the reader in the middle of the laughter. The story may be presented in a lighthearted way, but the reality of life is there: the racism, the economic troubles, the narcos, the need to find a way to survive, any way to survive.

On whichever side of whatever border we find ourselves.

Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews322 followers
April 11, 2014

I popped Mr. Urrea's Into the Beautiful North on my library's e-book queue quite a while ago, and then kinda ignored it. Since then, my awareness of the south-of-the-border-immigrants' plight had deepened (via a viewing of HBO's haunting doc "Which Way Home", several horrifying visits to El Blog del Narco, even hearing several first-hand accounts from my co-workers who'd made the voyage north) and I was really in no mood for a depressing novel on the same subject.

What a surprise it was for Urrea to turn the immgrant story on its head, into an almost-magical mystical quest, not for (you'd think) a better life north of the border; no, our intrepid female protagonists Nayeli (the soccer star), Yoloxochitl (YO-LO-SO-sheet, the bowling pin setter) and Verónica (the Type O Negative fan and goth-girl La Vampi) along with Tacho, the taco-purveying maricón, make a pilgrimage to Los Yunaites (the US) to find males to repopulate and protect their (man-and-peso-poor) Sinaloan fishing village Tres Camarones.

The novel reads like a warped present-day fairy tale, certainly not the depressing, harrowing immigrant experience I'd been expecting (though slightly sugar-coated, it's certainly not without some scary moments). Peppered throughout with indelible characters (like Tía Irma, former Mexican Women's Bowling Champion and newly elected mayor of Tres Camarones; and Atómico, staff-wielding Tijuana garbage dump-dwelling Superhero-like protector of our adventurers) and caustic humor, Into the Beautiful North is a terrific read. (only a meh ending keeps this from getting 5 stars). ¡Leerlo, ya!
Profile Image for Daniel Villines.
383 reviews51 followers
May 22, 2022
The first thing that captured my attention is the simple, straight forward writing used by Urrea. The words and sentences have a kind and inviting feeling to them that exudes sincerity. This allowed the plot to move emotionally from happy to sad while always keeping the tone serious and real. There was no over-exaggeration or manufactured excitement. Urrea is simply telling his story.

On a personal note, I am Mexican by way of my mother’s family. And the Mexican part of me has always felt partially out of place. I was brought up as ‘American’ as my mother could manage. She is a US citizen but she could not speak English when she, as a child, started elementary school. She wanted her son to avoid the stigma that she felt. As such, my only real connection to my heritage is a passionate love for Mexican food as prepared by my mom and my grandmother.

But Into the Beautiful North seemed to reach into me and strike at other, mostly hidden nuances in my Mexican self; things that were probably embedded in me while being around my Mexican aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Urrea's Mexicans all seem to possess an inherent kindness. They also possess a sort of built in stoicism, an implied humor based on thinly veiled sarcasm, and a fatalism that allows for the enjoyment of reality given that they’ve already anticipated the worse that can happen. While these things may not be exclusive to Mexicans, they certainly resonated in my heart and it felt like home.

The story is a bit kooky but it is also deadly plausible. It provided a means of expression of current political climates. And through this expression, the personal elements of political concepts were brought to life. It truly is a masterful approach akin to Orwell or Huxley, but done in a much more subtle way. Again, it’s the writing that makes it all possible.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
Author 3 books186 followers
July 9, 2020
It took me forever to finish this meandering tale of a group of Mexican teenage girls who cross the border to find themselves their own "Magnificent Seven," seven men who can come back to their mostly abandoned village and protect the remaining women from local bandidos. One girl is also on a hunt for her biological father, who disappeared from her life long ago. The tone of the book, despite the hardships the girls encounter, is relentlessly cheerful and the plot contrived, as they are always magically rescued by some sort of savior each time things look grim. The climax where the main character locates her father is so anticlimactic it is almost unrecognizable, and the too-clever-by-half dialogue, peppered with untranslated Spanish, may distance some readers from the characters, who seem more like caricatures than real people. A disappointment, as the idea seemed quite original and different, but the lengthy execution left much to be desired.
Profile Image for Michelle Lemaster.
179 reviews16 followers
June 15, 2009
I just spent a lovely cloudy, cuddly day finishing this wonderful book by Luis Urrea. The characters of this modern-day quest novel are so unforgettable and entirely loveable. For some reason, the casts of Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat come to mind. The brave, dompe warrior, Atomiko, in particular, seems as though he would fit right in with the chivalrous misfits that made their homes in abandoned warehouses and giant unused boilers... they who were completely content with jug of hooch or doing right by the old Doc. Perhaps this comparison would seem to reach to some, but to me there is a timeless quality to Atomiko, Wino, Tacho, and Tia Irma among others that will put this book on a shelf with my other "classics."

Nayeli, with her sunshine smile, enlists the help of her friends goth-girl "Vampi," wild Yolo, and flamey Tacho on a mission Stateside to find and bring home men to their town, that lately is left with only babies, women and the infirm. Wild antics and adventures ensue. Such a great book-- read it now!!
Profile Image for Liana Grace.
236 reviews
January 9, 2022
“She was so disturbed that it gave her the strangest comfort, as though something she had suspected about life all along was being confirmed, and the sorrow she felt in her bed at night was reflected by this soil.”

So happy that this timely and incredible book found me.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,768 followers
January 23, 2010
Urrea approaches the subject of illegal immigration, one that is fraught with political baggage, violence and despair, with sweetly bizarre characters, gentle satire and an earnest quest that disarm and charm the reader. Instead of the hammerhead of stereotypical gringo moral vacuousness and illegal alien helplessness that bludgeoned us in TC Boyle's Tortilla Curtain, Urrea crafts slight caricatures that defy stereotypes. Just when you are getting comfortable with your assumptions and think you know where the story is heading, up springs a staff-wielding Samurai of the Tijuana dump, a former missionary-surfer dude, or tattooed goth-rocker with lush locks and a puppy-dog heart to tweak the story and steer the wheel ever so gently north.

This is a novel about choices, about personal liberty, and opportunity- not themes you would expect to find when reading about Mexicans crossing into the United States illegally. The originality of the story, Urrea's light touch in directing the characters' foolish and courageous journey, and his eye for rich detail make this such a refreshing read.
Profile Image for Chris.
1,444 reviews31 followers
May 14, 2015
A disappointment. Too slow paced. It took forever for them to get into the Beautiful North. I got tired of the stereotypical Mexicans, Indians, and gringos. It tried hard to be funny and satirical but it didn't succeed with me. I was hoping for a Don Quixote like quest but this one was not so. Ending was strange and disconnected too.
Profile Image for Taryn.
1,206 reviews188 followers
September 18, 2015
I have now read back-to-back books that take somber subject matter and infuse it with light and warmth in unexpected ways. Earlier this week I wrote about Crooked Heart, set during the London Blitz, and today I bring to your attention the delightful and surprising Into the Beautiful North, a hybrid coming of age/quest novel about teenagers from rural Mexico crossing the border into the US illegally—for a reason you'd never expect.

The book blipped onto my radar thanks to the Big Read , a promotion in my fair city and others across the country in which everyone in town is encouraged to read the same book. Then there are public events and discussions about the book and its themes. While I'm not one for hobnobbing with strangers or touring art galleries, I was game for reading this year's selection, especially when I found out it was a title so topical and relevant. (I'm still not over the 2008 choice of My Antonia. If I wanted to encourage people to make reading a regular part of their lives, Willa Cather is not exactly the fresh, exciting starting point that comes to mind.)

Unlike the Cather bomb, Urrea's novel is an inspired choice. Main character Nayeli is a firecracker, short and cute but trained in martial arts and tougher than a boot. She lives in Tres Camarones, a tiny village in Sinaloa, Mexico. Nayeli's father, along with most of the men in the village, have left for the US to earn money, leaving Tres Camarones unprotected from the bandidos and corrupt cops that make their way through town. After a showing of The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli hatches a plan to recruit her own Magnificent Seven—she will go to the United States and find men who have left, like her father, and bring them back to Tres Camarones to revitalize the town.

So Nayeli sets off on her quest, along with her friends Vampi (so named due to her Goth proclivities), Yolo (short for Yoloxochitl), and Tacho (who named his bar “The Limp Wrist” in an effort to get ahead of those who would judge his sexuality). As you might guess, the friends' border crossing is rife with danger and tension—encounters with border agents and less than welcoming Americans—but it's also hilarious. Nayeli, Vampi, and Yolo are still teenage girls, despite the seriousness of their mission, and teenage girls are hard pressed not to swoon and shriek. It's just what they do.

Even if you've read other books about undocumented immigrants, you haven't read this playful riff on the theme before. Into the Beautiful North is a marvel of reinvention.

More book recommendations by me at www.readingwithhippos.com
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
830 reviews766 followers
February 26, 2011
Urrea is a playful, generous writer who clearly loves life, women, and prose. Although this novel is not as sprawling as The Hummingbird's Daughter, it is a lively and sensory mini-epic about the love of a village in Mexico and the chance of a dream that extends into America--into the beautiful North--and back.

Nineteen-year old Nayeli shimmers and sways when she walks. She dreams of better things than working at the taco stand in Tres Camarones, the remote village of her birth in Sinaloa. Her father traded his family for a job in the US, "Los Yunaites," years ago. Over time, the men have been disappearing from the village and migrating to Tijuana or even further into the U.S. And now bandidos are threatening to take over the unguarded town.

Nayeli and her friends, as well as her Aunt Irma, who is running for mayor, hatch a plan after watching The Magnificent Seven at the local cinema, The Cine Pedro Infante. With the brio of Yul Brynner (who Irma insists is Mexican) and a determination to repopulate Tres Camaorones with men, they conceive a mission. Nayeli and her friends will find a way to sneak into the US illegally, find seven robust, strapping men, and bring them back to their village. Additionally, Nayeli intends to travel to Illinois, find her father, and convince him to come home.

This novel embraces the exuberance of life and the love of Mexico with a witty, irreverent, and lyrically fluid narrative. All the prime characters are three-dimensional, authentic. Nayeli, with the strong brown calves and alluring, inscrutable smile; La Vampira, or Vampi, the only goth girl in Sinaloa; Yolo, the heady intellectual; and their lone male friend, Tacho--taco-master of The Fallen Hand. They are recruited to join Nayeli on her adventure North. The four friends experience dangerous adventure at the boisterous border in Tijuana and the pain and pleasure of growing up and shedding a few provincial feathers while they test their wings. Odd, ripe characters pepper the novel with their salty tongues, and a striking balance of ardor and menace keeps you off-balance and in suspense. Potent, enchanting, and sizzling like a tortilla in the sun; Into the Beautiful North will dance and delight you, seduce and entice you.
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,772 reviews332 followers
July 18, 2017
Book on CD narrated by Susan Ericksen

In the tiny coastal town of Tres Camarones, Sinaloa, Mexico, nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop and dreams about her father, who left for America years ago. Her Aunt Irma is campaigning for Mayor, and when a gang of bandidos begins to move in, the women and children of Tres Camarones realize that they are helpless – all the men have left for “el norte.” Inspired by a showing of Steve McQueen’s The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli and her girlfriends: Vampi, Yolo and Tacho (who is the local homosexual), agree to go on a mission to bring some Mexican men back from the United States to repopulate their village.

This is a quest novel, a coming-of-age story, and a road trip adventure, populated by one of the most eclectic cast of characters in literature. I loved Nayeli, whose smile is like the sunrise. She’s honest, fierce, loyal to her friends, and determined to succeed in her mission. Despite many set-backs – losing all their luggage, being mugged, caught by the border patrol, etc – she keeps her mind on their goal and keeps her troops together and moving forward. Along the way the warriors meet some people who help them: Porfirio and Ariceli, who share their meager shack and a meal, Atómiko, who is their best chance for getting across, Rodrigo, who rescues Tacho, Matt, a surfer dude and former missionary who welcomes them to his late mother’s San Diego house, and – my favorite – a librarian who provides the key to Nayeli’s quest.

Despite loving Nayeli, Tacho, Tía Irma and a host of other characters, I thought the novel was a just okay. The plot and message seemed to get lost in the quirkiness. I liked it. I’m glad I read it. But it wasn’t the kind of memorable read that gets a fourth star – at least not from me.

The novel is translated from Spanish to English, but still includes much Spanish and even some “Spanglish.” This may be challenging for readers who don’t speak Spanish.

The audio book is performed by Susan Ericksen. While she did a reasonable job with all the many characters she had one major flaw. Her Spanish pronunciation is TERRIBLE. Surely the publisher could have found a narrator with better Spanish for this very MEXICAN book. 1 star for her performance.
Profile Image for Chuck.
Author 8 books10 followers
August 5, 2010
48 out of 100 for 2010 . . .

Book People in Austin is the largest independent bookstore in the world. Everytime I stumble into there (less often than I'd like, maybe once every year or two) I grab hold of the books recommended by the staff, or copies of books signed by authors who visited the store. Doing this has led me to many great books that I never would have run across in the local Barnes and Noble (and no, I don't bash BNN and am glad I finally live in a town big enough to have one). This is how I stumbled across this extraordinary (mostly comic) novel.

'tis the story of Nayeli, a young woman a few years out of high school, who lives in the fictional village of Tres Camarrones, which has been taken over by a local drug cartel. There are no adult men in the village to oppose them; all have gone 'into the North' to find work. The only males living in the village are a few old men, a few boys, and the local homosexual named Tacho (Nayeli's boss, also her good friend).

Nayeli and her friends hatch a plan to go to El Norte to find seven "warriors" to come back to Tres Camarrones to rid the town of the drug cartel and to repopulate the town. She also hopes to find her father. Nayeli, two other girls, and Tacho head north, face a harrowing border crossing, deportation, another crossing, San Diego, and a series of harrowing ordeals on their quest. Along the way they encounter racism and kindness, experienced Border Patrol agents who recognize the humanity of those who cross as well as Rambo types who abuse their power, unexpected kindness, and sudden cruelty. The main mode of the novel is comic (the openly gay Tachi is mistaken for a member of a terror organization at one point, for example).

The novel could be called 'There's Something About Nayeli' because of the effect she has on people. She helps people remember the best things about themselves, helps them to remember their dreams, and awakes in them a sense of wanting to be a part of something larger.

Other themes are present; when she begins to tell Mexican men that she wants them to come home, that she, her village, and all Mexico need them, they are at first leery. When the men realize she is serious, she has a different problem . . . she only wanted seven men, and she finds first twenty seven, then seventy, then more . . . the men are mostly miserable in the States, and, more than anything else, they want to go home (an interesting side note is that much of the recent immigration 'reform' also makes it illegal to cross back into Mexico, so it's harder for people to bo back who want to).

The novel is also a celebration both of Mexico and the States; Nayli finds much beauty and much that is wonderful on her journey from the interior of Mexico to the outskirts of Chicago.

I won't spoil the whole story, but Nayeli does not get everything she hoped and dreamed of. However, she finds she is much more able than she knows, and is a hero to those around her, even though she may not feel heroic herself.

Nayeli is a character whom it's worth taking the time to get to know. Highly recommended
Profile Image for Judy King.
Author 1 book23 followers
October 31, 2011
Because I so loved The Hummingbird's Daughter -- another masterpiece by Luis Urrea, I marked this book "to read" back in March, and soon after downloaded the book so I could read it. Then something about the reviews I read had me pushing it back -- perhaps because I live in Mexico and have seen how news reports about the drug cartel have hurt the country, because my opinions about the immigration issue don't match those of many who live north of the border.

At any rate, I put it off and put it off, until yesterday, when I consumed it whole. I listened to the audio version -- and loved it just as much as Hummingbird, just in another way!

Urrea is brilliant -- his ability to see and portray these difficult hot issues of the land of his ancestors and of this part of my life is simply stunning. Who else could make me love and adore a cocky, egomaniac, obstreperous TJ dump dweller? Or, for that matter, enjoy an overnight visit among the dump people at the "dum-pe." And then I was just as surprised to be so fond of one of the immigration officers; of course, it helped that he had a soft heart! I loved the view of the US through the eyes of these young people who went north on a quest...SO very well done!

This is a fascinating book -- it teaches as much -- no more than did "A Day Without a Mexican," with a great deal of humor, drama and trauma. I laughed out loud a dozen times as the story played out.

I can find little to fault in this project -- even the reader did a great job -- and I bet by now she can correctly pronounce Orale, jamaica, jacaranda and Oye....That's a great record -- only 4 slightly botched words among all the Spanish tucked here and there in the story -- and none of those words familiar to most anglos.

Please, Luis, we need MORE books like this -- maybe eventually the world will understand.

Readers, run, don't walk to devour this book. I'm jealous of those of you who haven't read it -- you still have the opportunity to unwrap this story for the first time...just like the outstanding gift that it is.
Profile Image for Nadine in NY Jones.
2,751 reviews217 followers
September 23, 2020
This book is the perfect example of why I'm often reluctant to DNF. Because at first, I just was not feeling it with this book, I didn't like the humor, I was bored, it was slow, and I wasn't sure where the plot was headed. But it gradually grew on me, and it turns out I loved this book! Eventually, I was so wrapped up in the story that I forgot to jot down any notes for a review, so this won't be much of a review.

I don't know how Urrea managed to write humorously and seriously at the same time. Some of the characters (well, most of the characters) are ridiculously over-the-top, almost caricatures, but they are all so very human, and Urrea is always laughing with them, never at them.
Profile Image for GoldGato.
1,140 reviews40 followers
December 24, 2021
Who knew Yul Brynner could be so influential? In this novel about a tiny Mexican village and the dreams of its cinema-influenced inhabitants, it’s the Magnificent Seven and the American Dream coming together for an unexpected adventure.

The little village is full of young females and senior citizens because the men have already left for jobs in the United States. That means there is an opportunity for a gang to come take over the area for their drug running activities. The feisty female mayor is obsessed with Yul Brynner, stubbornly believing he is Mexican because of his film roles. She fills the heads of three younger females with the idea of rescuing their village just as Yul and Steve McQueen did in the famous western movie. To that end, the girls take off with a plan to get to the United States, with the idea of finding a group of men who will journey back with them to save the village.

This is a great idea for a novel, as it creates a three-act scenario. First, we learn all about the inhabitants of the village and their run-down movie theatre. Then we follow them as they make the long trek to the border. Finally, we cross our fingers and hope they achieve their objective. We also get a Toshiro Mifune character from The Seven Samurai, who lives in a Tijuana garbage dump but believes in chivalry and making a name for himself. It’s a sharp glance of a book comparing two neighboring countries and their different outlooks on life.

No wonder Americans seemed crazy to everybody else – they were utterly alone in the vastness of this ridiculously immense land. They all skittered about, alighting and flying off again like frantic butterflies. Looking for --- what? What were they looking for?

I really enjoyed this read especially as it highlights the town of Kankakee, Illinois. A real-life city librarian, Mary-Jo Johnston, helped re-ignite the dying town by being at the forefront of welcoming immigrants and integrating them into the town’s social fabric. A section of the book is dedicated to her, a reminder that some people still believe in the elusive American Dream and keeping it open for everyone. The author, Luis Alberto Urrea, obviously loves books and libraries because of the opportunities reading can provide. Some of the characters are worthy and some are ditzy, all in the service of saving their hometown. I expected Eli Wallach to appear at any moment.

Book Season = Spring (mangoes and chili peppers)
Profile Image for Kathleen H.
151 reviews15 followers
December 21, 2011
I'm just finishing this book and I'm loving every minute of it. There are so many sub-cultures and interesting juxtapositions in the novel. Let me back up and talk premise:

Three 19 year old girls live in a very small town in Central Mexico. One day, they realize that there are no men left in the village -- they have all gone North to the United States to find work... many no longer contact the families they left behind. The town is dying, and the banditos (from the local drug cartel) are circling. The girls decide to go on a Magnificent Seven-style quest to find men... warriors who will bring life (and safety) back to the village. During the journey, we meet a slew of interesting, unique, and very fully fleshed characters.

I love this book on so many levels -- every paragraph is punctuated with Spanish, Spanglish, phonetically spelled English said with a Spanish accent, and barrio-style Spanish (a completely different dialect), yet it's understandable -- the Spanish isn't distracting, but instead lends a better understanding of the characters. There's also an interesting glimpse at parallel worlds: between the girls -- who must translate the vato-boy Spanish for their elders who can't understand what they're saying -- and the missionary boy they go to visit -- who's mother can't understand what her son's surfer-dude friends are saying, either.

The characters are so realistic and believable -- fallible, but not unbelievably so; egotistical, but not caricatured; strong, but not super-hero strong... and the girl's guardian, the only gay man living in their small town... he is brilliantly rendered. Strong, protective, feeling, yet sadly isolated, yearning for a community of people like himself.

I would recommend this title to teens as well as adults, of all genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. The book progresses quickly with lots of action, and the reading level is not too challenging (even with all the Spanish dialects going on).
Profile Image for Suzanne Crane.
187 reviews7 followers
January 11, 2012
I've been hanging on every word from the very beginning, which is unusual for me on audiobooks. I love these characters so far. ***Note: This review contains teasers, (not really spoilers.)*** The book is vivid because the various settings are so familiar to me, yet I was seeing them through very different eyes. I kept waiting for something horrid to happen, and was delighted that this author chose to make his characters encounter more of the Good Americans than the bottom feeders when it mattered the most. It was refreshing that he could tackle this difficult topic and bring us through it without significantly wrenching my gut over some horror. Instead, I was smiling (most of the time) because it was actually pretty light, compared to the "Tortilla Curtain". (Honestly, what happened to that baby?!) I digress... This book will change your perspective. I am thankful for my citizenship and humbled by it as well, and this book stirred up a lot of that for me. It is only by chance that I was I born a Suzanne and not a Nayelli. Even still, she and her friends taught me the same lesson as Dorothy once did. "There's no place like home," even for someone with a name like "Atomico!"
Profile Image for Lorrie.
732 reviews
January 17, 2016
This book was a complete surprise to me. I listened to it while driving and was thoroughly captivated after the first CD. The main character, Nyele, was going to travel to Kankakee, IL, from Tres Carmones, MX, in search of her father, Dom Pepe Cervantes. She, with the assistance of her tia and 3 friends, traveled to San Diego and also Kankakee. Her aunt was a former professional bowling star and now the mayor of Tres Carmones. Aunt Irma had a past lover, Chava, in the USA. The author referred to the United States as los eunides. This bothered me a little since I have only heard of the USA as estados unidos. This inconsistency got in the way of my reading enjoyment, and I'd be interested if anyone could tell me the reason for this discrepancy. I'm sure there must be a reason for this; however, the people I've questioned have never heard of the author's term. Nyele and her friends were also in search of 7 Mexican citizens who were now living in the USA and either former members of the Mexican army or policemen. These 7 citizens were needed in Tres Carmones to rid the area of drug dealers. The group planned to smuggle everyone back into Mexico. I really enjoyed this book and will recommend it to my daughters who were raised in Kankakee.
Profile Image for Mark.
1,374 reviews104 followers
May 20, 2019
I have read several of Urrea's books and have loved every one. Sadly, this one fell short. It is a story about a young Mexican woman illegally crossing the US border, to find her father. Nothing grabbed me here and I find it puzzling, because I adored his NF book, [The Devil's Highway] which took a penetrating look at the border patrol and illegal crossings. That one I highly recommend.
Profile Image for Melissa (Catch Up Mode).
4,573 reviews1,880 followers
July 19, 2020
This was my book club pick for the month and I really enjoyed my time reading it. Such a great story of people coming together for a common purpose, yet they each learn something along the way.
The author's sense of humor propels the story and makes it so much more readable than if it was straightforward. The characters were distinct and I totally loved Nayeli and her strength.
It was so fascinating to read about the group's perceptions of the US, then see their initial observations and how things changed over time.
I never would have picked this book up on my own, so I'm very glad it was chosen because it was a great read.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,126 reviews1,202 followers
October 17, 2013
This is one of those books that deals with serious issues in a lighthearted way. It reminded me of Moonlight in Odessa and I Do Not Come to You by Chance--also fun and entertaining books dealing with the problems of coming from an economically depressed place--though this is the lightest and most humorous of the three.

Into the Beautiful North is a story about a group of teenagers, three girls and their gay friend, who undertake a quest to find men to repopulate Tres Camerones, their small Sinaloan town, decimated by immigration and threatened by bandits. This is of course a preposterous premise--the town's authority figures are happy to send them on their way with gifts of money to finance their journey, and Urrea doesn’t even try to explain how these guys are meant to make a living once they arrive--but it works, because the book never takes itself too seriously. The dangers of illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are certainly present, but in the way that dangers are in quest stories: taken seriously at the time but leaving no permanent mark on the characters. Urrea manages to sneak in some bigger themes and some commentary on immigration policy, but at heart it’s still a goofy, entertaining story.

The goofiness extends to the characters, who are exaggerated but not quite to the point of caricature; they manage to be vivid and entertaining if not especially deep. Nayeli, the protagonist, is one of those characters written to be strong and relatable without being particularly memorable in her own right; most colorful are the quirky secondary cast, from Nayeli's silly friend Vampi, who's going through a goth phase, to the redoubtable Irma, newly-elected mayor of Tres Camerones, to Atomiko, self-styled warrior of a Tijuana garbage dump. And Urrea has a strong ear for dialogue, whether in English, Spanish or some combination of the two. One of the running jokes is how badly all the main characters speak English; another is the inability of the older characters to understand teenage slang (a constant on a both sides of the border). The amount of untranslated Spanish in the dialogue may be off-putting for some readers, particularly as there isn’t a glossary, but it adds so much color to the text and the characters that I still think this was a good choice.

The writing itself is perfectly adequate, though again, it doesn’t take itself too seriously: for instance, there are some goofy dialogue tags (“Holy crap,” Tacho noted). The descriptions are vivid, and the tendency to slip into omniscient narration mostly works.

All that said, I didn’t find the book entirely captivating, and was a bit tired of it by the time it reached its rather rushed conclusion. It’s not great literature, nor is it the most fun book I’ve read this year, but if you like the idea of a contemporary quest novel or a lighthearted take on illegal immigration, it’s definitely worth a shot.
Profile Image for Ryandake.
404 reviews48 followers
May 3, 2012
i've been reading a lot of half-books lately... you know, you start it, putter along, sputter out... pick up another. but this one is a keeper.

as a californian who sees migrant workers in the fields every day on my way to my own job, i have a lot of sympathy for, although admittedly not a lot of knowledge of, people who come to this country in search of something better. those folks work hard at jobs most natives wouldn't take. they have nothing but my respect.

over the years things are getting harder for them, too. i am so very glad california is not arizona, but it must be said that our is often a benign neglect: migrants do live in shantytowns that steinbeck would have recognized. sigh.

so! to read Urrea's book is a treasure. partly because he takes a look at immigration from the other side. partly because he does not injure my skull with recriminations.

the book is lighthearted, for the most part. a group of teenaged mexican girls travels to the US to convince mexican men to repatriate! it's a funny setup, and he makes a funny book of it. one finds oneself rooting for the girls to succeed, in part because they are charming and funny, in part because i know that life here for immigrants is not any sort of paradise.

if you don't fall in love with the characters in this book, in all their bluster and macho (both male and female) and and tenderness and allure and joi de vivre, i'd say there's probably something deeply wrong with you.

urrea's descriptions of landscape are fantastic. you just have to laugh at his depiction of the Rockies and the Great Plains. i knew a man once who had visited the US from Japan, and hated it. i asked him why. he said because it was too big.

indeed. maybe it does induce a form of lunacy.

i can't say for sure how long this book will bounce around my memory, popping up when i am not particularly thinking it about it, connecting with other, unrelated things, reminding me. i hope it is a long time, because this book on first read doesn't seem deep--it lacks sententiousness--but i kind of think that like the best of Vonnegut's work, it will rise to my consciousness when i do not expect it to, and reveal to me something i hadn't seen before.

in any case, Viva Atomiko!
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