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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What I'm Reading: Into the Beautiful North

As I mentioned yesterday, tomorrow, I will be interviewing Luis Alberto Urrea for the Fox Valley Reads.  The book we all read is Into the Beautiful North.

I am going to break the mold on my review here in the interest of time.  First here is the publisher's statement on the book:
Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the US 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 Magnificos"--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.
And here is what Urrea has to say about it:
After the torture of writing The Devil’s Highway and the turmoil of completing The Hummingbird’s DaughterI needed a break.  I might have stopped writing at all except for haiku and road journals if I didn’t owe the good folks at Hachette another book… or ten.  So I set out to make myself happy.  I confess:  this book was utterly selfish.  But I also thought that if I made myself laugh out loud every day, perhaps you would laugh too.  And we all needed a laugh. 
Still, I had made a vow to God a long time ago that I would keep elements of witness and service in everything I write.  This being, for me, a spiritual journey rather than (sigh) a commercial one.  So I worked very consciously to embed elements of social commentary, subversion, surprise and humanity in every part of the book.  Some critics were harsh at first.  Yes, I knew it was “no Hummingbird’s Daughter.”  But I also thought it had some of the most humanitarian and provocative stuff in anything I’d ever written.  The initial chuckles may have disguised that.  
I was thrilled beyond belief that Latina magazine picked it as one of its best beach-reads.  Frankly, I was enjoying a bit of pop-writing.  I wanted a sunny book that went to the beach in a mesh bag and occasionally made the reader say, Hmmmm.It felt subversive to make undocumented people the heroes of an American book.  To make the three male heroes a gay man, a Mexican bowling alley janitor, and a scary cholo from the Tijuana municipal garbage dump.  It also felt subversive to make the action-hero a 19 year old young woman undertaking a heroine’s journey—Mad Max and Beowulf have nothing on Nayeli! 
Lately, people have been clamoring for sequels.  It’s funny—time changes all careers.  Now I’m not immediately known as “the author of Hummingbird,” but as the author of Beautiful North.  Here’s what readers and a couple of critics (hello, Alan Cheuse)  want to see:  1) the battle of Tres Camarones; 2) Tacho’s big gay wedding.  YES! 
I was pretty sure I had done something right when I was mocked for an hour by an atheist friend for putting so many ridiculous religious images in the book.  Then, when I got home, I had a letter from a nice Illinois church lady chiding me for the anti-Christian bias in the book.  For the record:  this time I have to side with the atheist.
So between these 2 statements you get a very good idea of what Into the Beautiful North is about.

So let me talk about some of the appeal. What is most striking about this book is the unique premise Urrea has concocted and the amazing characters.

Let's start with the premise.  As I noted here yesterday,
...the most striking thing about the story-- it’s set up.  I love that they are sneaking into the US to bring the undocumented workers back home.  It is a funny, touching, bittersweet, and quite honestly a subversive premise.  And it is so very original since most of the crossing the border literature and news today is so polarizing and political.  Instead you turn the entire issue on its side, forcing readers to rethink their own beliefs and opinions about illegal immigration.

This is an extremely thought provoking idea.  Characters along the way comment on how interesting Nayeli and her crew's task is, how noble, how counter intuitive.  This original set up makes for a story that is able to walk the tightrope between serious, heartfelt, and humorous without missing a step.

And then there are the characters.  Urrea alludes to how unorthodox his heroes are above.  You fall in love with this rag tag bunch as you read along and follow then on their quest.  If you are a reader who enjoys fully rounded, rich characters, this is a book you should not miss.  Each one is unique and what is unique about each character is helpful to the group on their road trip.

I could write a post each on various characters, that is how great they are.

It's funny, I know people who read for character and others who read for plot.  Into the Beautiful North is that rare book that could appeal to both.

Reading Into the Beautiful North was by far the best reading surprise I had this year, maybe in many years, especially considering I HAD to read it for work.  I didn't even need to like it to be able to interview him well.  I loved this book and will be telling many people about it.

Finally, I want to note there is an underlying spirituality to this, and all of Urrea's work.  There is no overt religion, just an overarching belief and faith driving the characters (some more than others). But as he said above, both religious people and anarchists have found reasons to dislike this book.

Three Words That Describe This Book: original, character centered, thought provoking quest

Readalikes:  First, visit the official Fox Valley Reads list of readalikes.  It is extensive and hits on the obvious read alike areas.

That list almost makes my job harder.  I have to think outside the box.  But hey, it is what I do.  So I am going with matching Into the Beautiful North with other original, thought provoking books, with quests of some type that still have a happy and bright tone.  It is not easy to find those, I know, but that is why I loved this book.  It gave me something unexpected that made me think AND smile.

Here are some books I have read that fit that mold. These titles share very little beyond what is in bold above, but that combo is so rare I think it is worth mentioning it.  You will not find these books showing up as readalikes in traditional sources. The titles link to my reviews with more detail and even more readalikes.

See some of you tomorrow night.

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