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.