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Originally published Sunday, May 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Into the Beautiful North:" Searching for seven magnificent men

In "Into the Beautiful North," novelist Luis Alberto Urrea spins a wondrous yarn of a young Mexican woman who recruits her friends and heads north to the U.S. in search of seven heroes who can defend her village against drug dealers.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Luis Alberto Urrea

The author of "Into the Beautiful North" will read from his book at noon Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com) and at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Seattle location of the University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

"Into the Beautiful North"

by Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown, 352 pp., $24.99

Luis Alberto Urrea, a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore themes of love, loss and the difficulty of living in two worlds. His best-known book, "The Devil's Highway," is a nonfiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert. It won the 2004 Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It was chosen as the University of Washington's 2008-2009 "Common Book," a single book that all freshmen were encouraged to read and discuss.

"Into the Beautiful North" is about Nayeli, who is 19 years old and working in a taco shop in what would conventionally be referred to as a "sleepy Mexican village." The town is not as sleepy as the residents would like. Bandidos — drug dealers — have appeared and are threatening their way of life. There aren't enough men left in town to defend the women, children and old people from their incursions.

Nayeli comes up with a solution after seeing "The Magnificent Seven" at the local cinema. She sees every movie that comes to town several times — but this one has a message just for her. She decides to go to the United States and find seven men to bring back home. They will marry, start families and be the salvation of the village. Their mere presence will deter bandidos.

Her Tia Irma won't let her go alone, so she takes Irma's American Express card; Tacho, the gay owner of the taco shop; and her two best friends, Yolo, the reader, and Veronica, the goth girl. So begins their picaresque adventure. The escapades of these four and the people they meet, who help or hinder them, are alternately hilarious, poignant, scary and sad.

Urrea's meticulous detail makes the story come to life: language problems, Tacho's outrageous behavior, the generous reception they get in the dumps of Tijuana among people who have nothing — all combine to have the reader pulling for the success of this search for another magnificent seven. Two subplots involve Tia Irma and an old boyfriend now living in San Diego, and Nayeli's father, who long ago left for the States to find a job and never returned. An important part of Nayeli's journey is the hope of finding him.

The most interesting twist in the tale is that none of the travelers have any desire to stay in the States. They are all longing to get back home and make their village better. How this all happens is a wondrous yarn in the hands of a terrific storyteller. Not to trivialize, but these characters cry out for a sequel — maybe a telenovela? They are too good for just a single outing.

Valerie Ryan owns a bookstore in Cannon Beach, Ore.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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