My Central and South American reading project got off to an excellent start with Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel Into the Beautiful North. I read this lovely book in about two days and closed the last page feeling like I’d met some of the most delightful and interesting characters of all my recent reading.

Into the Beautiful North begins in small town Mexico, a dry and dusty place populated with cranky old women and vivacious teenage girls. The town’s jewel is a young woman named Nayeli, full of energy and confidence and the book focuses on her joys and inner sorrows (her father has vanished to the North with the rest of the men from town). Essentially, the novel belongs to Nayeli and her journey to find her father and save her town.

That serious focus is wrapped and twisted around a horde of outrageously quirky characters – Tacho: gay, owner of the town’s café and Nayeli’s best friend, Atómiko: a slang-speaking garbage dump warrior with a heart of gold, Aunt Irma: the outspoken and rigidly feminist new mayor, Vampi: Nayeli’s gothic girlfriend…the list goes on and on and includes border patrol officers, an ex-missionary, restaurant owners and a sweet, bumbling retired semi-pro bowler.

Tacho, Nayeli, Vampi and another girl named Yolo strike out on a journey to sneak into the United States to bring some men back to their devastated small town. They go about this task with an incredible optimism and an almost blind faith in their future success. Their endearing naiveté is almost too hard to believe, so are the number of near-disasters (instead of real disasters) that beset them. Not to mention Nayeli’s near perfect and extremely useful karate skills.  But I felt this only gave Into the Beautiful North a fairytale quality that suited its delicate balance of comedy and tragedy. The novel flirts with real violence, edges close to utter tragedy but somehow keeps every single one of its charming characters out of any real danger.

Almost everyone in Into the Beautiful North is kind. Genuinely kind and ready to help a stranger in need. Now when was the last time a contemporary novel attempted to assert that wild supposition? Urrea’s characters may be flawed and quirky, have sharp tongues or look extremely dangerous, but deep inside they are devoted to one another and to their fellow human beings. As I mentioned before, this gave the book a touch of fairytale but I didn’t feel it ever became trite. No one in the novel is perfect, and most of the characters are faced with difficult choices, but the story flows along over an undercurrent of ‘goodness’, for lack of a better word, that was refreshing.

So now I’ll be leaving Mexico and heading to Guatemala with The Divine Husband by Francisco Goldman.