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BookLust: The Devil’s Highway October 16, 2009

Posted by A. Robinson in BookLust.
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Tough read.  Important read.  Must read.

Tough read. Important read. Must read.

I’m going to post this separately from a recap about Luis Alberto Urrea’s visit to campus, just for posterity’s sake.  Oh, and also, then I have TWO blog entries.

I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction.  Unless it’s a cookbook, craft anthology, or magazine, I tend to gravitate towards fiction.  When I’ve got a down moment, I’m much more likely to pick up Lorrie Moore than I am Jon Krakauer, in other words.  When we were told that we had to teach this in class, I didn’t quite know what to expect, not only from the book but from my students.  I have to admit, I thought the book would be a series of redundancies for me–after all, who better to know the border than a girl who grew up there?  The fact that the book had been a finalist for a Pulitzer didn’t really sway me one way or the other; I expected a dull read full of outdated statistics, gross over-generalizations, and liberal propaganda (honestly).

What I found was an absolutely riveting piece of creative non-fiction.  Urrea writes beautifully.  He carefully picks his language and metaphors so that they are honest but impactful.  The story itself focuses on the Yuma 14/Wellton 26, a group of illegal Mexican immigrants who lose their lives in the middle of the Arizona desert.  Instead of starting from the group’s first step into Arizona, Urrea begins at the beginning, and the book’s success and readability hinges on this move.  He sets up the book by giving the reader an in-depth look at the border patrol and the Devil’s Highway, and explains key terminology which factors into the rest of the text.  I have to admit, the first part of the book is slow going and a little schizophrenic; Urrea frontloads The Devil’s Highway with information, and hops around substantially while he delivers it.

If you can stick with the book, it skyrockets in parts two and three.  Urrea is incredibly careful with the story he has been given. Urrea’s compassion for the men and their families colors the text as he paints the “walkers” in vivid detail.  The reader is immediately taken by the dramatic irony in the book, for Urrea never lets us forget that as we meet these “real” people, we are doomed to powerlessly follow them to their deaths.  We walk with the illegals step for step as Urrea painstakingly pieces together their story from survivor testimonials.  In terms of perspective, I felt like I was reading a first-person account of the tragedy rather than investigative journalism.

The real beauty of this book lies in its humanistic take on illegal immigration.  From the border patrol to the gang that organizes the death march, Urrea portrays each person as an actual person, not just a “group.”  For example, the reader gets to know many of the Yuma 14 along with their motives for running the border, and we realize that these people are more than just “Mexicans who steal our jobs,” but are fathers, sons,and providers.  The border patrol agents do their job and do it well, but The Devil’s Highway shows them as “missionaries” of a sort, a kind of cavalry dedicated to saving the lives of immigrants just as they protect the American people.  Though the book is tangibly biased, Urrea’s opinion is fairly hard to pin down: he seems to sympathize wholly with the immigrants, but he’s understanding of the American fear that surrounds the immigration issue in general.

Not only did I learn a ton from the book itself, I could not help but be moved by the Yuma 14’s story.  It’s tragic from beginning to end, and I honestly had to set the book aside more than once because the horror had become too acute.  Urrea pulls no punches and tells it like it is, even in death.  He forces us to count the steps to one man’s final resting place, watch as the men go insane from hyperthermia, and experience the tragedy of rescue.  The work is beautifully done, and I think that it should be a must read for all American citizens.  Though he sometimes downplays the complexity of the immigration situation–who truly understands it?–the work he does to make immigrants more than just a group is astounding.

The scope of this book is undeniable.  Regardless of your stance on immigration (and regardless of your citizenship!), you will learn something about yourself after you close the back cover of The Devil’s Highway.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5 (a gripping and critical text)

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