Into the Beautiful North by suchenfz


									                                Reading Group Guide

                           Into the
                        Beautiful North
                                       a novel

                              Luis Alberto Ur r ea

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                      Kankakee Gets Its Groove Back
                                       by Luis Alberto Urrea

            It seems the only time Chicagoans think of the small city of Kankakee
            fifty-five miles to the south is when the inevitable springtime storm
            warnings crawl across the bottom of our televisions. If a bad storm
            or tornado is coming, chances are pretty good that Kankakee is in its
            path. A few years ago, Kankakee was listed as one of the worst cities
            in America. David Letterman deepened the insult by shipping the
            city two prefabricated gazebos to elevate the livability factor.
                 When a Kankakee library board member, Mary Jo Johnston,
            recently invited me there to do a reading, she warned me to watch
            for wild turkeys on the highway. I expected twenty-five retired
            women in a quaint brick building. It took me three drive-bys to
            realize that the corporate tower in the center of town was the library
            and that more than 325 citizens of Kankakee were waiting inside.
                 This reception had little to do with me — and everything to do
            with Kankakee, the commercial engine of a county still reeling
            from an economic downturn. Kankakee is pulling itself back from
            the brink. And it all started with the library. The one thing that the
            people of Kankakee know is that to rebuild a suffering city, you
            first have to reconstruct its culture, its community.
                 Mayor Donald Green, sixty-three, has lived in Kankakee his
            entire life. But as Mayor Green started his thirteenth year in office
            last month, he did so in a town where 60 to 70 percent of the homes
            sold now are being bought by newcomers.
                 You could see that reflected in the audience at the library. There

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                                       4 • Reading Group Guide

             were the expected bright midwestern faces. But beside them were
             the faces of people who’d once lived in the Chicago projects and the
             towns of Guanajuato State in Mexico, who were now working in
             Kankakee’s farms, nurseries, and restaurants.
                 When Mayor Green realized that the overwhelming majority of
             Kankakee’s Hispanic residents (who account for about 10 percent of
             its population) hailed from Guanajuato, he took a delegation of com-
             munity representatives down there to forge an alliance. By creating a
             “sister city” relationship, Mayor Green wanted his newest citizens to
             understand they have a role in determining Kankakee’s future.
                 “My philosophy is you can take this community, revitalize it,
             make it financially solvent,” he said. “You give it all back to the people
             of the community because they are the ones who have the power.”
                 When Provena Health abandoned its headquarters in the seven-
             story Executive Center downtown in 2002, it was the community’s
             idea to convert it into a library. Less than a year after the renova-
             tions started, the Kankakee Public Library moved from a dilapi-
             dated 105-year-old building into a sophisticated showplace that
             extended over three floors.
                 This new public library has become the cultural hub of the city,
             crucial to its downtown revitalization. A new bank and a satellite
             university campus have already been completed, and a park with a
             water fountain is on its way. (Mr. Letterman’s gazebos are still in
             use.) “It all started with the library,” Mayor Green said. “I can’t
             tell you how proud that makes our community.”
                 Our cities are scrambling to find fresh paradigms for a new
             America. Maybe, just maybe, the midwesterners, librarians, and
             Mexicans of Kankakee, Illinois, have found theirs.

             This essay originally appeared in a somewhat different form in the New York
             Times on June 11, 2006. Reprinted with permission.

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             A conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea

            What inspired you to write Into the Beautiful North?

            Three things moved me to write the book: First, I was sick of immi-
            gration/border writing. It started to feel like it was all the same,
            making all the same points, by all the same writers. Second was
            my fascination with small-town life in both Mexico and the United
            States and the huge cultural changes going on in both places that I
            never see documented. And, finally, although it is a painful book in
            many ways, I wanted to write something that made me laugh out
            loud every day.

            You were born in Tijuana but moved to California when you were
            four. How has your background influenced your writing and the
            different ways in which you’ve written about the U.S.-Mexican

            Paradoxically, it makes me both an insider and an outsider. Many
            writers who write about the border are tourists. People from the
            border often resent these carpetbaggers who show up for a week or
            a month and then share their wisdom with the world. At the same
            time, it’s useful for a writer to be a half step removed from the gen-
            eral current because we are observers. I feel that it gives me a fresh
            perspective on my country — both of them.

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             How did the experience of writing this fictional adventure differ
             from that of writing your nonfiction book The Devil’s Highway?
             Knowing what you know about the grim realities that illegal immi-
             grants face, was it difficult to novelize — and even satirize — such

             My experience of this situation predates The Devil’s Highway by
             a lifetime. Not only is my own history intimately involved with
             these issues, but I spent a substantial number of years doing relief
             work on the border and my first books were about places like the
             Tijuana garbage dump. What you need to remember about people
             is that they are complex and complete. The garbage pickers, the
             “illegal aliens,” the border patrol agents, the missionaries are all
             funny people. The point is not that you are poor; the point is how
             you are poor. Everybody has a story.

             Speaking of which, why did you decide to inject so much humor
             into the book?

             Because I write funny books. I didn’t inject humor into the book —
             that sounds like you’re basting a turkey. The humor always, for me,
             rises from the story, the characters, and the milieu. It’s just the way
             my soul works. I have often said in interviews that I write the fun-
             niest tragedies in town.

             Is the idyllic — if off the beaten track — town of Tres Camarones
             based on an actual place?

             Yes, it is. It’s based on my father’s hometown, a place as mythic to
             me as some of the villages in Latin American novels are to those
             authors. It existed all through my childhood as a myth and a tall
             tale, thus it bonded with my DNA.

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                                       Reading Group Guide • 7

            John Sturges’s film The Magnificent Seven was one of the main
            catalysts for the epic journey of Nayeli, Yolo, and Vampi. Has a
            book or a movie ever influenced you in a similarly profound way?

            Absolutely. I’m a magpie picking up shiny objects to take back to
            the nest all day long. I write with the ghosts of 12 authors, 13 movie
            directors, 14 musicians, and Steve McQueen in the room.

            The Magnificent Seven was essentially a remake of Akira Kurosa-
            wa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai, transporting the original’s story
            from feudal Japan to the American frontier. In turn, you reset the
            story in contemporary North America. How specific is location to
            your books — that is, could someone “remake” them in a different
            setting and era?

            I think my books are pretty site-specific. Like much of the litera-
            ture of the American West, it is imperative to my writing that place
            (landscape) be a main character in the story. Certainly in some-
            thing like The Hummingbird’s Daughter, the land itself is a mys-
            tical participant. I feel that in The Devil’s Highway and Into the
            Beautiful North as well.

            Aunt Irma and Atomiko are two of the most memorable characters
            in the novel: both are larger than life and possess stubborn ideolo-
            gies that portray them as being tougher than they really are. What
            inspired you to include these personalities, and are they based upon
            anyone you know?

            Atomiko is largely the product of my own sick mind. But if you
            go to the source, Seven Samurai, you know automatically who
            Atomiko is. He is Toshiro Mifune, the unwashed, unloved rogue
            Ronin warrior. But the personality traits are based on many scruffy,

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                                       8 • Reading Group Guide

             indomitable border rats, not least of which is my cousin Hugo,
             the family’s notorious pistolero. Aunt Irma? Well, I have a ter-
             rifying Aunt Irma who is the retired women’s bowling champ of
             Mexico . . . you figure it out!

             Why Kankakee, Illinois?

             I wrote a column for the New York Times about Kankakee, and
             the reception Nayeli and Tacho get in Kankakee should at least
             imply why Kankakee. It’s a town that moved me and it’s a popula-
             tion that inspired me and I always hopelessly, passionately, root for
             the underdog.

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                  Questions and topics for discussion

              1. Into the Beautiful North tells the story of a small group’s suc-
                 cessful mission to save their Mexican village in its bleakest
                 hour. What are some of the other themes that Luis Alberto
                 Urrea unpacks along the way?

              2. Language and dialect play an integral role in the novel’s style.
                 Spanish words and phonetic spellings are laced throughout,
                 and Spanglish and slang are used on both sides of the bor-
                 der. What does Urrea achieve by mixing language in this way?
                 What does such usage say about the ability of language to
                 bridge — or fail to bridge — cultural gaps?

              3. Into the Beautiful North is divided into two parts — Sur and
                 Norte. References to American pop culture abound in the first
                 half as Nayeli and her friends speak of life across the border
                 with unwavering certainty. Where do their ideas of America
                 come from? How does the reality of their time in the U.S. com-
                 pare to their initial ideas of it? Are they surprised or disap-

              4. Nayeli tells García-García, “Perhaps it is time for a new kind
                 of femininity?” What does she mean? Given the homage to
                 The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai in the novel, how
                 has Urrea played with gender stereotypes?

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               5. Into the Beautiful North examines physical and psychological
                  borders. Urrea repeatedly shows that while the physical bor-
                  ders can be crossed, some that are culturally defined appear
                  unbridgeable. What are those culturally defined differences,
                  and do you think it’s possible to eradicate such invisible bor-

               6. After traveling thousands of miles in search of her father, Nay-
                  eli is unable to confront him. In your opinion, does she make
                  the right decision to heed his words at this time — “all things
                  must pass” — or should she have approached him?

               7. What do you make of the overwhelming turnout produced by
                  Aunt Irma’s interviews? Why do so many men want to return
                  to Mexico? Does this strike you as ironic?

               8. Nayeli and her friends are inspired by the movie The Magnifi-
                  cent Seven, a remake of the Japanese film Seven Samurai. Both
                  films climax with the showdown between good guys and bad
                  guys, but Urrea ends his novel before such a clash. Why do you
                  think he did so?

               9. Were you surprised to find the Mexican characters so knowl-
                  edgeable about American pop culture? If you were surprised,
                  did it change how you think about Mexico?

             10. Where did your family emigrate from? Did you recognize any
                 parallels between your family’s stories and Into the Beautiful

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