Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

9 Responses to “Luis Alberto Urrea – Into the Beautiful North”

  1. Steph

    I haven’t read anything by this author yet, but I do have a copy of The Humminbird’s Daughter that I hope to get to soon. I enjoy books that have a fairytale quality (I am a big fan of magical realism), so reading your thoughts on this one has made me really excited to finally experience Urrea!

  2. Lilian Nattel

    I put it on my reading list and on hold at the library. Why should a book filled with basically kind characters be any less realistic than one filled with basically obnoxious or greedy or self-centred bastardly ones? I’m curious now to read it.

  3. Ann

    As ever, you’ve added to my virtual tbr pile. I have read almost nothing by Central/South American authors and to be honest this will have to wait until after I’ve finished my current module, but it sounds a definite need to know.

  4. verbivore

    Steph – You’ll have to let me know what you think of The Hummingbird’s Daughter, he is definitely an author I’d like to read more from.

    Lillian – Such a good question! I think what made the book more fairytale was the continual serendipity. We’re not used to that notion anymore and I think I instinctively mistrusted it, at the same time loving the book for daring to pile it on. I’d love to know what you think ofthis one if you get a chance to read it.

    SMithereens – I couldn’t have asked for a better book to start, and can’t wait to see what my journey south brings!

    Ann – I have very little experience with South American literature as well, hence my desire to start this project. But back to your field – I’ll be reading King Lear this week!

  5. nicole

    I’ve been scolding myself recently for not reading more Latin American fiction, but now I can live through you for a while at least and learn something!

  6. Dorothy W.

    I’m adding this one to the TBR pile! I’ve never read Urrea, and I’m very glad to know this novel is so good. Thanks for the review.

  7. verbivore

    Stefanie – I think so too!

    Nicole – My self-scolding turned into this project 🙂 Hope you enjoy these books as much as I’m enjoying your epistolary books.

    Dorothy – I’m now interested in finding his The Hummingbird’s Daughter, I suspect he’s an author I will really get along with.

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