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Review: The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little Brown 2004)

Reviewed by Chidinma Onuoha

As long as there have been people walking the Devil’s Highway, there have been deaths. It is Desolation. It is a wasteland where any green vegetation is grey and were temperatures rise up to the triple digits. Here, bones pepper the region and Levi jeans last longer than flesh. In this book, Luis Alberto Urrea paints a harrowing true story of twenty-six men who took the forty mile death march across the Arizona desert in hopes of prosperity in the United States. Only twelve made it out.

While Urrea is mostly recognized as a border writer, he’d rather be known as a person who writes “bridges, not borders”. Published in 2004, this book could not be any more timely considering the growing controversy over immigration — though many political issues have changed since Urrea authored The Devil’s Highway, the desperation of those crossing our southern border has, unfortunately, only grown in the decade and a half this book has been in print. Urrea uses this tragedy, which occurred in May 2001, as an example to further explain the socio-political measures that influenced the men’s fate—human smuggling, lack of proper border and immigration reform, and corruption in government. In Urrea’s novel, the Coyotes (aka human smugglers) and the Mexican and United States government are to blame. And unfortunately, everyday people on a desperate quest for financial prosperity were caught in its web.

Urrea portrays the Coyotes (particularly Mendez, who is the villain in this book) as people who exploit immigrants for money; for them, the goal is to get people across the border under whatever conditions are convenient. This includes packaging people in trunks and leading them into hazardous terrain, all while simultaneously extorting most of their money and savings. However, Coyotes convince immigrants to give them the substantial sum by claiming that the journey will benefit them and their family back home in the end. Ultimately, most immigrants can’t find other options, and often have no choice but to trust in the Coyotes to take them to the U.S.

Despite this problem, Urrea states that Mexico did nothing more than provide a sign to discourage walkers from crossing:

“For the Coyotes Your Needs

Are Only A Business And

They Don’t Care About Your Safety

Or the Safety of Your Family.

DON’T PAY THEM OFF WITH YOUR LIVES!!!

The Sasabe sign, which many of the walkers can’t read, is the only thing Mexico is doing to try to stop them from crossing.”

This book educates those who have little to no idea what border crossing entails. It explains the push and pull factors that drives so many Mexican men to find opportunities elsewhere. Men left because children were dying, dengue fever and malaria was spreading, and political violence was still prevalent. These men were subject to Coyotes like Mendez, who would take the walkers money at a ridiculously high interest rate just so they could afford to cross the border. Some Coyotes used new chemicals or cocaine to speed up walkers to get them to their destinations faster. But when Coyotes could sense that the men they were smuggling were at the brink of death, they’d empty the walker’s pockets dry, claiming that they—the Coyotes—were going to use it to buy water and come back with it. Only the money of the dead and dying would be used for personal consumption.

In the desert, men go insane. One man took off all of his clothes and folded them in a neat pile, placing his shoes at the top so that his clothing wouldn’t blow away in the wafting wind. He laid down on his back, on the oven-hot ground—naked—staring up at the sun; he waited for death. Another man smashed his face into a cactus, desperate for water. Another buried himself in the dirt, barely a torso deep; maybe he was trying to get cool, maybe he was seeing a mirage and thought he was swimming in a lake. Who knows. Urrea doesn’t fail to make this as painful to read as it was for the walkers to endure. We know that there were 26 men on the trip and that only 12 survived the death march through the Devil’s Highway. And we have to read every slow agonizing journey of how each man falls, and how the others try to stay alive.     Urrea  uses different point-of-views in the third-person to heighten this effect. We get to see the viewpoint of the walkers, the Border Patrol and the Coyotes. We see every experience and not just one side of the story—a wonderful journalistic approach. We see that the highway, too, is a living thing and the most prevalent antagonist in the book. We see a sober account of the day in the life of Border Patrols or La Migra, not idolizing them as protectors nor enemies, but putting them on a neutral playing field; even though they steer walkers back to Mexico (the very place walkers are desperate to leave), they are also responsible for recovering the dead in the Arizona desert.

“If it was the Border Patrol’s job to apprehend lawbreakers, it was equally their duty to save the lost and the dying”. But I can’t overlook that they too are responsible for creating mean nicknames like “wets” and “tonks”—a name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head. (16)

Everyone is human in this book. Everyone has a story. Sometimes there are people who commit inhumane crimes and sometimes there are people who do whatever they can to aide walkers. It makes you wonder how good men who wanted nothing more than to provide for their family and taste a bit of the American Dream became victims to their home country’s corruption and the United States’ ineffective border policies. It’s a reality that is beyond the minds of our comfortable first world bubble—most global issues are, unfortunately. But Urrea has done a splendid job of bringing these issues to the forefront.


Buy this book: Indiebound / Amazon

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Review: The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter by Gillian Cummings

The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter by Gillian Cummings (Center for Literary Publishing 2018)

Reviewed by Bianca Glinskas

“The speech of rain: it was only a matter

of something asking to be let in”

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Review: Ghostographs: An Album by Maria Romasco Moore

Ghostographs: An Album by Maria Romasco Moore (Rose Metal Press 2018)

Reviewed by Rebecca Valley

“We were proud that a town as small as ours had an abyss of its own.”

Recently, I took my partner up to the place where I was raised, a string of little towns in the corner of northern Vermont on the edge of Lake Champlain. It was ten degrees colder there, beautiful and mostly empty. It snowed. As we drove around he was uncertain, a little nervous. I showed him the half-built mansion across from a dairy farm where the recession and disputes over money lead a couple to divorce before the crew could complete construction. I showed him row after row of cornfields, train tracks. To me it was familiar, comfortable. It always will be. As the product of that rural corner of the world, I don’t mind the emptiness, the eccentricities. My partner said, on our way home: “In some ways it’s kind of beautiful up there. You don’t have to assimilate. You can just walk in the woods, have your delusions. You can be your complete self.”

Continue reading “Review: Ghostographs: An Album by Maria Romasco Moore”

Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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Reviewed by Andres Vaamonde

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is about magic portals. It’s about immigration. It’s about distance. But mostly, it’s about love. Continue reading “Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid”

Review: Landscape of The Wait by Jami Macarty

51C4Sad+45L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Landscape of The Wait by Jami Macarty (Finishing Line Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Michelle Mitchell-Foust

Derived from the ancient word for “watching,” waiting seems especially relegated to the human animal. Waiting implies the existence of a thought process as well as biology–a stasis, a trance. The state implies a wish, as a reaction to time and action. It makes sense that the literature of waiting has ancient origins, and that the sub-genre thrives during war. The world’s most important epics are also part of the body of the literature of waiting. The Odyssey and Penelope’s wait, and The Aeneid and Dido’s wait are two of our most essential examples. Naturally, the literature of waiting thrived during World War II, when Yehuda Amichai wrote the marvelous poem I heard him read in Hebrew and in English at the Hillel Center at UCLA in the 1990’s, where he said, in essence, that the war was not worth the poems made by the light of warfare. It begins

Out of three or four in a room,

One is always standing at the window.

Forced to see the injustice among the thorns,

The fires on the hills.

Continue reading “Review: Landscape of The Wait by Jami Macarty”

Review: The Emissary by Yoko Tawada

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The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, trans. by Margaret Mitsutani (New Directions 2018)

Reviewed by Rebecca Valley

It had been my intention all along to review Yoko Tawada’s most recently translated novel The Emissary this week, and the announcement that Tawada was the recipient of the first award for translated literature since the National Book Award became the National Book Award in the early 1980s only solidified my thrill at getting the chance to write about this novel. Though all the books selected this year are exciting – I am particularly interested in finally reading Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend – I am particularly happy to see this nod to translated books in American literature. Compared to most countries America’s publication of translated works is nominal, and I respect and appreciate the National Book Award in their effort to encourage publishers to look internationally for new voices. Continue reading “Review: The Emissary by Yoko Tawada”

Review: Moon: Maps, Letters, Poems by Jennifer S. Cheng

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Moon: Maps, Letters, Poems by Jennifer S. Cheng (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Rebecca Valley

At a poetry reading in September at a planetarium on the Amherst College campus, Dorothea Lasky and Alex Dimitrov talked about astrology – in particular, they talked about moons. Our individual moons: closer to us than other planets and yet too far to ever touch, milky and always changing their shape to match the rhythm of months,. Moons in Scorpio, Aries, Leo, Capricorn. Our moons, they told us, are where our poetry comes from. They were sure of this. Continue reading “Review: Moon: Maps, Letters, Poems by Jennifer S. Cheng”