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Merle

Merle

Into the Beautiful North - Luis Alberto Urrea This is one of those books that deals with serious issues in a lighthearted way. It reminded me of [b:Moonlight in Odessa|6443363|Moonlight in Odessa|Janet Skeslien Charles|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312030633s/6443363.jpg|6633356] and [b:I Do Not Come to You by Chance|6265288|I Do Not Come to You by Chance|Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1293037353s/6265288.jpg|6448541]--also fun and entertaining books dealing with the problems of coming from an economically depressed place--though this is the lightest and most humorous of the three.

Into the Beautiful North is a story about a group of teenagers, three girls and their gay friend, who undertake a quest to find men to repopulate Tres Camerones, their small Sinaloan town, decimated by immigration and threatened by bandits. This is of course a preposterous premise--the town's authority figures are happy to send them on their way with gifts of money to finance their journey, and Urrea doesn’t even try to explain how these guys are meant to make a living once they arrive--but it works, because the book never takes itself too seriously. The dangers of illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are certainly present, but in the way that dangers are in quest stories: taken seriously at the time but leaving no permanent mark on the characters. Urrea manages to sneak in some bigger themes and some commentary on immigration policy, but at heart it’s still a goofy, entertaining story.

The goofiness extends to the characters, who are exaggerated but not quite to the point of caricature; they manage to be vivid and entertaining if not especially deep. Nayeli, the protagonist, is one of those characters written to be strong and relatable without being particularly memorable in her own right; most colorful are the quirky secondary cast, from Nayeli's silly friend Vampi, who's going through a goth phase, to the redoubtable Irma, newly-elected mayor of Tres Camerones, to Atomiko, self-styled warrior of a Tijuana garbage dump. And Urrea has a strong ear for dialogue, whether in English, Spanish or some combination of the two. One of the running jokes is how badly all the main characters speak English; another is the inability of the older characters to understand teenage slang (a constant on a both sides of the border). The amount of untranslated Spanish in the dialogue may be off-putting for some readers, particularly as there isn’t a glossary, but it adds so much color to the text and the characters that I still think this was a good choice.

The writing itself is perfectly adequate, though again, it doesn’t take itself too seriously: for instance, there are some goofy dialogue tags (“Holy crap,” Tacho noted). The descriptions are vivid, and the tendency to slip into omniscient narration mostly works.

All that said, I didn’t find the book entirely captivating, and was a bit tired of it by the time it reached its rather rushed conclusion. It’s not great literature, nor is it the most fun book I’ve read this year, but if you like the idea of a contemporary quest novel or a lighthearted take on illegal immigration, it’s definitely worth a shot.