Thursday, July 30, 2009
Into the Beautiful North
Luis Alberto Urrea
The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a book that I’ve never read, but that I’ve picked up countless times at the bookstore. Something about the title, or maybe the cover, tempts me. But I never went so far as to actually buy the book. Then, when I was at the LA Times Festival of Books, I attended a panel featuring (among others) Luis Alberto Urrea. And he started off by reading a passage from his latest book, Into the Beautiful North. I was hooked. And I loved the panel…along with Thrity Umrigar and Gina Nahai, Urrea spoke about sense of place. They discussed language and culture and how to give readers a sense of the place they are writing about. Without ever reading a word he’d written, I became a fan. As soon as the panel was over, I rushed out to buy the book.
And okay, then the book sat in the TBR pile for awhile. But not too long! Only about a month, which is actually pretty good, considering how much competition it had.
This book surprised me. I didn’t expect it to be so funny, or so casual in tone. And even though Urrea spoke about how he uses language to convey culture, I somehow didn’t expect how much language he would use, or how much culture he really could convey. In that sense, this book is like Oscar Wao, only better. Because while I didn’t understand every word, I certainly understood the tone and the intent. And I know some people don’t like this, but I would argue that there is so much Spanglish and humor that it is fairly easy to understand a great deal of the Spanish. And without it, this book wouldn’t be as good as it is. Besides, if you get totally stumped, there’s always Google and urbandictionary. :-)
Into the Beautiful North is the story of Nayeli and her friends, and their journey from Mexico to the US in search of men. Not men for themselves, but men for their village. Nayeli has come to the realization that all of the men in her town have left for the US…and they never came home. Inspired by the film The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides that it’s time to follow them north and find seven men who will return with her to help protect and revitalize the town. Additionally, Nayeli is determined to find her own father, who left years ago and never returned. As Nayeli journeys north, she finds help in the unlikeliest of places, and amongst the unlikeliest of characters.
Along with the language, the genius in this book is in its characters. They are all quirky, unique and lovable. While I occasionally found myself shaking my head at their actions, I was still rooting for them all the way. Atomiko!
And someday, I’m going to read The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
Powell’s has a wonderful interview with Urrea, in which he talks about all sorts of things, including Into the Beautiful North. He’s also on Twitter, with his lovely wife Cindy, and I have to say, they are the nicest couple. Because you can actually chat with them…and it’s like talking to your neighbors (only better, because my neighbors spend all their time staring at our house and freaking me out). I always appreciate people who are approachable and unpretentious, so at the risk of sounding too fan girly, I’ll just end by saying Urrea is the bomb. Both in real life and in print.