Thursday, February 6, 2014

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (2009)

I loved this book so much, I got hooked from almost the very first page.  I was frightened at first because I liked the characters so much that I didn't want anything awful to happen to them.  Bad things do happen to them, but not so much that I couldn't stomach what happened.  It's not an Oprah book (abuse porn).

Tacho steals the show; I liked how Urrea wrote him in such a away that you think he's a man, when in actuality he's only a little bit older than the girls (if that).  The attitude and language towards Tacho bothered me; it's really realistic, and Urrea doesn't gloss over how straight males disrespect Tacho and females treat him like an exotic pet - until he comes into his own, that is.  I hope he goes back to the doctor in Tijuana.  Those chapters made me really happy.

As a southern Californian of Kansas descent, I'm actually surrounded by Mexicans  all the time, legally here, illegally here, visiting, been here since California was Mexico, etc.  I think a lot of us are like Matt, oblivious, unsure, occasionally xenophobic and racist, and also really attracted and fascinated.  Mexican culture can be so different from typical American culture, the northern European culture I grew up with; and this book does a great job of comparing and contrasting the two.  The book also compares and contrasts Mexican American and American culture to some degree as well.

Clearly, Urrea has upset the gender cart, and some of the macho Mexican men get a come-uppance in the book.  The real heroes are a girl and a gay guy, with the old aunt thrown in. Of course, there is Atómico, who I also came to adore, but he doesn't really fall into the traditional male role.

Into the Beautiful NorthInto the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an incredible novel, with an animated plot and memorable characters that will stick with you long after you turn the last page.    Urrea uses The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai as a mold of sorts, but if anything it's  an old-fashioned mid-century jello mold, where he mixes  all sorts of strange fruits and meats into the lime green wonderfulness to create something unusual and beautiful.  He flips gender on it head and pokes holes in stereotypical Mexican machismo (our heroes are a kick-ass girl and a hot, tough gay guy). He compares and contrasts American culture and Mexican culture and Mexican American culture.  Nothing is simple here - the black hats aren't necessarily the bad guys - or maybe they just aren't the worst guys.  And the good guys have sharp edges with shadows - their hats are really gray (but don't we all wear gray hats).  Nayeli, our heroine, has two guys in her life who will do anything for her, and quite frankly both of them steal whatever scenes they are in.  They are completely original characters.  Tacho, a sassy, mature-before-his-time gay guy in a small village who has become tough - but underneath the bitchery lies love and heroics; and romantic, sloppy modern day ronin Atómico, who lives in a dump and wields a sword for love and freedom.  I can't decide who I ended up being in love with more.  I wept at the end of this book; which to me, is the ultimate sign of greatness - but I laughed too. This isn't a downer; it's clever and humorous and really fun.


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