Review copy courtesy of Hachette Book Group
Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the US to find work. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn’t the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village–they’ve all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men–her own “Siete Magníficos”–to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.
I have to admit I don’t think much of the synopses put on jackets or on book flaps. The above is accurate, but I found it an over simplification of the story Urrea tells.
Nayeli is young, and in search of help, but more so of hope and answers. Sometimes what you’re looking for isn’t where you find it. And more often than not, it finds you. Even the truth, how you see it, isn’t what you expect when seen up close. Most adults, or at least those who have truly matured, will tell you it is how you respond to the revelation that defines the person you become.
Life isn’t about answers, but the experiences we go through in seeking them. If I had to summarize this novel in one sentence, it would be exactly that: a story about the experience, not the reason or even the result. Both of those are important, as any adventure needs an impetus and a conclusion. And as much as plot is the road the characters must travel, it is ultimately about them and what they learn – especially about themselves:
It shook her, this place. It was awful. Tragic. yet . . . it moved her. The sorrow she felt. It was profound. It was moving, somehow. The sorrow of the terrible abandoned garbage dump and the sad graves and the lonesome shacks made her feel something so far in side herself that she could not define it or place it. She was so disturbed that it gave her the strangest comfort, as though something she had suspected about life all along was being confirmed, and the sorrow she felt in her bed at night was reflected by this soil.
Along the way to Nayeli finding help, and answers, there are characters and incidents that will disturb you. The reality of the places and people surviving on the border between Mexico and the United States is put before you in a way that you cannot turn your face from, and to do this story any justice, I advise you not to.
The situations and the language are coarse at times, beautiful in others, and there were times I found myself laughing out loud. This is how it should be in the world Nayeli and her friends venture out into. They will see things they never imagined and not all of them are pleasant, some are downright hysterical.
Urrea uses language, both English and Spanish, to create a tone and setting which places the reader plumb with the characters. Some have complained about the amount of Spanish used, however I cannot fathom truly comprehending the story, the people, the challenges they face without it.
Initially, I was disappointed in the ending, and if it were not for the epilogue, it would have impacted my rating. I also came to realize that what I said in the beginning of this review holds true. This was about the adventure and the experience; the ending was anticlimactic because it really wasn’t the ending, just the author helping Nayeli close a door so she could open another.
As good as this book is, and as much I I like it, I am not sure about giving it full marks. I know there will be readers who will have problems with the amount of Spanish and some of the incidents. Just as the border region and the issues affecting it are hotly debated, I sense there will be those who feel the same regarding how Urrea handles them.
For those of you who may not know, he is amply qualified in speaking of these problems. He was born in Tijuana and has worked as a relief worker there.
I am going to give this book 5 out of 5 stars because I believe the story and Urrea’s writing outweigh any of the minor issues with plot, setting, or language.
Luis Alberto Urrea is a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame.