Urrea, celebrated for his historical sagas (Queen of America, 2011) and nonfiction (The Devil’s Highway, 2004), offers 13 stories that reflect both sides of his Mexican-American heritage while stretching the reader’s understanding of human boundaries.
With spare eloquence, the opening “Mountains Without Number” conjures up a dying town near Idaho Falls, both its stark landscape and aging inhabitants. The language turns lush, Latin and slangy in the next two stories, “The Southside Raza Image Federation Corp of Discovery” and “The National City Reparation Society,” which feature the bookish Mexican-American Junior, who doesn’t fit in with a white college crowd any more than with the immigrant community he grew up among. The theme of young Anglos straddling class and/or cultural borders occurs, too. The adolescent white narrator of “Amapola” falls in love with a beautiful Mexican girl, naïvely oblivious to the source of her family’s wealth. Joey in “Young Man Blues” learns the reward and price of goodness when caught between loyalty to his elderly middle-class employer and his father’s criminal cohorts. While “Carnations” and “The White Girl” are brief snapshots of grief, “The Sous Chefs of Iogua” resonates on multiple levels, exposing the uneasy complexities of Anglo-Mexican relationships in an Iowa farm town. In “Taped to the Sky,” a Cambridge academic suffering over an ex-wife takes a cross-country trip to the far west and has a darkly comic encounter with Oglala Sioux Don Her Many Horses, who shows his depth in the volume’s bittersweet final story, “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses,” about a white man whose marriage to Don’s sister shows the power and limitations of cross-cultural love. “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush,” about a graffiti artist in a Mexican village, was published as a graphic novel in 2010; its magical realism would make it an outlier here if not for the penultimate “Welcome to the Water Museum,” a dystopian tale of Western life in an arid future when children consider water an anomaly.
Urrea’s command of language is matched only by his empathy for his characters.