A family saga that asks what it means to be American.
Urrea (The Water Museum, 2015, etc.) tells the story of Miguel Angel de la Cruz, or Big Angel, who must bury his mother as he himself is dying. Before his death, though, he means to celebrate one last birthday. “He wanted a birthday, pues. A last birthday,” Angel’s sister explains, and from that simple statement, the entire book unfolds. Urrea is an accomplished writer of fiction and nonfiction; his novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter was inspired by his great-aunt, the Mexican mystic Teresita Urrea, and The Devils’ Highway: A True Story, which recounts a catastrophic border crossing, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Here, he returns to his family as source, modeling Big Angel, or at least his circumstance, on his oldest brother, who died a month after their mother’s funeral. The result is a novel that is knowing and intimate, funny and tragic at once. The de la Cruzes are a big clan, messy and complex. The members have competing agendas, secrets, but at the same time, all share a commitment to family. “All we do, mija,” Big Angel tells his daughter, “is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.” It’s impossible to read that line (or, for that matter, this novel) without reflecting on the current American moment, in which Mexican-American families such as the de la Cruzes are often vilified. But if Urrea’s novel is anything, it is an American tale. It is a celebration, although Urrea is no sentimentalist; he knows the territory in which his narrative unfolds. There is tragedy here and danger; these are real people, living in the real world. Still, even when that world intrudes, it only heightens the strength, the resilience, of the family. “He thought he was still alive to make his amends,” Urrea writes of Big Angel. “He thought he was alive to try one last hour to unite his family. But now he knew…he was alive to save his boy’s life. His youngest son.”
Even in death, Urrea shows, we never lose our connection to one another, which is the point of this deft and moving book.