Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY by Luis Alberto Urrea Kirkus Star

THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY

A True Story

By Luis Alberto Urrea

Pub Date: April 2nd, 2004
ISBN: 0-316-74671-1
Publisher: Little, Brown

The rueful, fate-wracked tale of 26 men who tried to cross into the US from Mexico but chose the wrong time, place, and guide.

More than half would die, turned to cinder in the sun-blasted desert of southern Arizona. American Book Award–winner Urrea (Wandering Time, 1999, etc.) tells this grim story wonderfully; like the Border Patrol’s trackers, he cuts back and forth, looking for signs, following tracks wherever they might lead. This means relating the various biographies of the “walkers” themselves and discovering what drove them north, from the desire for a new life to a season’s work in the orange groves to a job putting a new roof on a house. It means delving into the disastrous Mexican state, with its “catastrophic political malfeasance that forced the walkers to flee their homes and bake to death in the western desert.” Urrea notes the shift in tactics, thanks to the Border Patrol’s extremely effective interdiction and prevention policies, which now compel guides to take walkers over the most remote and dangerous routes. They will often be abandoned if the going gets too tough, as happened here. Urrea spends time in the ratty border hotels and towns (“Sonoita smells like bad fruit and sewage. Blue clouds of exhaust leak from the dying cars”), and he spends time with the Patrol, especially the trackers, who can read so much from a footprint that it’s scary. But not as scary as hyperthermia and its ugly progress: the first stages of stress and fatigue, on through syncope and cramps, to the dreadful sludge of exhaustion and stroke. This is not the peaceful sleep-death brought on by freezing; it’s reeling and raging, and when a man’s son dies in his arms, “the father lurched away into the desert, away from the trees, crying out in despair.”

A horrendous story told with bitter skill, highlighting the whole sordid, greedy mess that attends illegal broader crossings.