Having read Luis Alberto Urrea‘s unforgettable Border Trilogy, I began the audible version of this novel that highlights illegal immigration with some trepidation. Alas, Urrea doesn’t narrate this title; and although it’s read with effective gusto by Susan Ericksen, I’ve gotten used to Urrea’s flow, having recently spent almost 20 aural hours listening to The Hummingbird’s Daughter. Based on previous experience with Urrea’s disturbing border stories, I also thought I had to be ready for more nightmares.
Certainly difficult issues including deadly crossings, border skirmishes, racist violence are all found here. The novel even begins with impending menace: bandidos and narcos threaten the tiny town of Tres Camarones in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, where most of the good men have long gone missing, leaving the women and children to fend for themselves. And yet in spite of the ominous opening, North is actually more fable, more fairy tale, even telenovela-like than savage realism.
Inspired by the mythic figures of “Estip” (yes, Steve) McQueen and Yul Brynner, and the swashbuckling heroism of films like The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli and her friends devise an unlikely plan to bring back the good Mexican men who will surely reclaim and protect their town. With the supportive blessing of Nayeli’s Aunt Irma – better known as “La Osa – the She-Bear,” and now the town’s newly-elected mayor – Nayeli, Yolo, and Vampi, chaperoned by the town’s one gay man, Tacho, set out for points north to wrangle their own magnificent seven. Nayeli hopes one of the returnees might even be her own father.
The foursome begin their quest with seemingly impossible dreams: Nayeli’s last name isn’t Cervantes for nothing, even if she ends up leaving her gift copy of Don Quixote on the bus ride to Tijuana. The foursome’s quixotic adventures include picking up a guardian angel named Atómiko in the dompe, multiple crossings, getting arrested for a ridiculous mistaken affiliation with Al Qaeda, serendipitously tracking down a former missionary surfer dude with Tres Camarones history, reuniting Aunt Irma with the love of her life, and inspiring a growing wave of reverse immigrant-wannabes.
Urrea’s story effortlessly flows between an absurdly hopeful road trip of quattro amigas, and the jarring reminders of the illegal immigrant’s life-on-the-run. While cheering for Nayeli’s charmed successes, the sharp reminders of the disparate life between the have-papers and the have-nots are never far. Be warned, be ready: North is thinking entertainment with a bittersweet edge.