It only takes a few pages of Luis Alberto Urrea’s thoroughly enjoyable Into the Beautiful North to start you wondering whether this book will break or warm your heart.
When drug dealers set their sights on the tiny Mexican village of Tres Camarones, it looks like no one can stop them. After all, there are no young or even middle-aged men left in town. They all have gone north to the United States.
But 19-year-old Nayeli, a pretty, adventurous young woman who works in the town’s lone Internet café cum taco shop, has a plan.
After a special viewing of “The Magnificent Seven” at the town’s cinema—made possible by the combined efforts of the mayor, Nayeli’s Aunt Irma, and the theater owner, idolaters of Yul Brenner and “Estip” McQueen, respectively—Nayeli decides to journey to the U.S. and recruit her own warriors. If she can find her father in Illinois or resume her flirtation with the blond missionary surfer who lives in San Diego while she’s there, so much the better.
So with Aunt Irma’s blessing and funding, Nayeli and three friends board a bus to Tijuana, where they hope to find a way across the border. Tijuana proves to be a revelation for the country quartet, in much the same way pre-Giuliani Times Square was for Midwesterners wandering through the heart of New York City at midnight.
With the help of some new friends, they slip across the border into the U.S., kicking off a memorable road trip. Nayeli and her friends are on a quest, and whether you’re Odysseus trying to make it home or a naïve group from the sticks, no quest is complete without setbacks, lost innocence, love and the delightful the addition of the odd misfit or two.
Urrea, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and best-selling author, administers lumps to both the U.S. and Mexico, while allowing his fondness for each nation to clearly shine through.
So which is it, will this novel break or warm your heart? A little of both, of course, much like the shared history of both countries.
Ian Schwartz writes from San Diego.