Into the Beautiful NorthInto the Beautiful North
by Luis Alberto Urrea

This was this year’s choice for the annual “If All Rochester read the Same Book” event. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable books to come out of this project in a few years. It was an unexpectedly funny tale of a road trip across North America. A group of young people from a small Mexican town, disturbed by the incusions of drug-lords’ bandits into their town, are inspired by a viewing of the movie The Magnificent Seven with the idea of going to the United States to bring back their missing menfolks. The resulting adventures are in classic “quest” tradition, with excitement and danger, love and romance, rollicking ridiculousness and eye-opening encounters with strangers and friends.

There are some books that grab me right from page one, and this was that kind of book. By the time I got through the second paragraph, I’d already said, “oh, yes, I’m gonna like this.” Here, try this sample taste from the first page yourself :

  • “Nobody in the village liked change. It had taken great civic upheaval to bring electricity to Tres Camarones, for example…It took the visionary mayor, Garcia-Garcia the first, to see the potential in electrical power…Still, there were holdouts…Such stalwarts relied on candles, kerosene lamps, and small bonfires in the street. These blazes, though festive, blocked the scant traffic and the trucks bearing beer and sides of beef, and Garcia-Garcia had to resort to the apocalyptic stratagem of banning street fires entirely. Denounced as an Antichrist, he was promptly defeated in the next election. Later, he was reelected: even if his policies had been too modernizing for some, the residents of Tres Camarones realized that a new mayor meant change, and change was the last thing they wanted. Progress might be inevitable, but there was no reason they should knuckle under without a fight.”

 Well? Doesn’t that opening whet your appetite for the rest of the story? Of course it does!

One of the residents of this change-resistant village is 19-year-old Nayeli, dreaming of faraway places while waiting tables at the local diner. The diner is owned by Tacho, a gay man who calls his diner an “internet cafe” courtesy of a single old laptop abandoned by a visiting Yankee missionary. Nayeli’s father left for “Los Yunaides” three years ago and never returned, leaving Nayeli with a postcard from Kankakee, Illinois as her only clue to his whereabouts. Looking around the village, she realizes that her father isn’t the only missing man. In fact, there are no men left in town except the very old. This vacuum presents an opportunity for women like Nayeli’s Aunt Irma, the “she-bear”, a local hero for her legendary prowess as a bowling champion, who has become the town’s first female mayor.

While the absence of the men has opened the doors for women to use their talents in civic life, it also leaves the town vulnerable to predators. When the elderly ex-mayor shows up on Aunt Irma’s doorstep with a bloody nose and the news that two bandidos have just turned him out of his own house, the solution is obvious. Nayeli will lead an expedition into the United States, vowing to return with their own “magnificent seven”, the men they hope will turn away the bad guys. She will be accompanied by her two comrades, the imaginative bookish Yolo and the eccentric Vampi, and by Nayeli’s boss Tacho. Along the way, the group also picks up Atomiko, a wild-eyed would-be samurai who rescues Nayeli from thugs in a Tijuana garbage dump.

I love to read about people who stick together in love and friendship, and this strangely-assorted quintet of travelers does exactly that. They always “have each other’s backs”, somehow, even when they tease and complain and tire each other out. Their reliance on each other is sometimes all they have, when luggage is lost and money stolen and the roadblocks along the way seem staggering. There are the garbage-dump zombies from whom Atomiko rescues Nayeli. There’s the frightening night in a sleazy hotel when the group must fight off drunks who invade their room in the wee hours. There’s the stomach-churning episode where Tacho is arrested by Border Patrol agents who mistakenly thought they heard him mention Al-Quaida when he was referring to his cafe “El Mano Caida” back home.

But there are also incidents of belly-laugh comedy and moving human connection. They track down Aunt Irma’s long-lost lover, recruiting him to join the quest, and ultimately reuniting him with Aunt Irma. They find a temporary home with the handsome ex-missionary, original owner of Tacho’s computer, with whom all three girls are temporarily besotted. They enjoy an unexpectedly warm welcome from a colony of homeless squatters in a cemetery, who generously share everything they have, along with laughter and dancing. And they are warmed by the hospitality of a kind librarian in Kankakee, who goes out of her way to make them feel at home in the American Midwest. The kindness of human beings for each other seems more powerful than the meanness. The goodness will, somehow, last longer and make more difference than the pettiness.

The book ends with the triumphal return of a “magnificent twenty-seven” marching into Tres Camarones. Their ultimate showdown with the banditos is left to the imagination of the reader. But somehow, describing it would have been superfluous, because the battle isn’t really what the book is all about. It’s about the journey, and about the friendships that sustain us along the road.