Into the Beautiful North (Urrea)

In his play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Steve Martin asks us to consider whether we appreciate, for example, Picasso’s work because we appreciate Picasso’s work or because we know we’re supposed to appreciate Picasso’s work. He wonders whether we’d admire something by Picasso if the name (and I think I’m getting this right) Schmedeman was on it.

Let me try this another way. When I first read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, I was horrified. I was sure that only having the name Alvarez on the cover saved it from being considered a predictable, stereotypical mess.

These two experiences came to mind as I read Urrea’s book. What would I have thought about it if I did not know anything about the author, including his last name.

With this view, the first half really suffers. The characters come across as stock, cardboards cutouts – even the setting is predictable. But do I give Urrea credit for being accurate because he was born in the setting, namely, Mexico?

The catalyst for the story – the desire to bring back seven Mexican men from the “beautiful north” to defend and repopulate their small hometown – is poignant and funny (because the number seven comes from Aunt Irma’s obsession with Yul Brynner). The time the four main characters (the gay Tacho – loyal, lusty Tacho and the three girl types) spend in Tijuana is richer and the story improves once they do get to the United States, but the characters do not. The long road trip that Nayeli and Tacho comes to a satisfying (for me as a reader), but sad (for Nayeli) ending. The moment I’ll most remember about the book is the staggering turnout that Aunt Irma gets when she advertises for Mexican men who want to return home. The line goes out the door.


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