A prop plane that crashes along the U.S.–Mexico border forces a family to confront the lawlessness and violence of life there in this debut novel.
Araceli, the matriarch at the center of this somber, gripping tale, lives by an orange grove in Harlingen, Texas, near the state’s southern tip. Undocumented and born in Mexico, she’s awaiting the return of her missing husband, as are her two sons, Uli and Cuauhtémoc. Cuauhtémoc invites Uli for a late-night flight in the farm’s crop duster, which crashes on the Mexico side of the border. Both survive but with injuries that trap them on the Mexican side, and they're soon separated. Alternating narratives among the three family members, Peña provides a window into the struggles of immigrants on the border as well as the violent drug war fueling the migration. Cuauhtémoc is pressed into service as a pilot making drug deliveries for one of the cartels. Uli searches for his father but winds up entangled in a local dogfighting ring and collecting scrap metal for money. Araceli, hearing of the crash, crosses the border on a fruitless search for her sons and ends up putting her mechanical savvy to use working in a shop mass-producing marijuana blunts. Blood and damage abound here, in both human and animal form, sometimes to grotesque extremes. (All-purpose construction glue seems a bad way to repair a bad face laceration.) But Peña isn’t being gratuitous, and though the narrative sometimes awkwardly gestures toward surrealism, it's marked more by the search for compassion and connection among the characters, most powerfully between Uli and June, the woman who takes him under her wing. Peña weaves in a few critiques about NAFTA and the United States’ role in the drug war, but mainly he keeps the story at ground level, which makes for bracing if discomfiting storytelling.
A piercing tale of lives broken by border violence.