A Book for 5,000 Readers

Devil’s Highway cover  This autumn all five thousand members of Seattle’s largest reading group will be tucking into a hair-raising true account of illegal Mexican immigration, Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway. If this compelling book doesn’t engage the minds of the University of Washington’s 2008 Freshman Class with its harrowing, heartbreaking picture of our immigration laws, nothing will.

It’s the story of the Yuma 14, the worst loss of life in border crossing history. Seven years ago, twenty-six walkers set out on the Devil’s Highway, became lost in the brutal terrain under conditions of extreme heat, and were abandoned by their guide. Only twelve survived.

Unexpectedly, the book doesn’t begin with the victims – it begins with forty pages about the men who guard the Devil’s Highway, the Border Patrol. It’s a respectful account of the guys everyone hates, men who love their country but sometimes do some pretty repugnant stuff. An illegal is called a “tonk,” the sound of a flashlight cracking over a human skull. A popular Border Patrol joke is to throw a dead rattlesnake into a truck full of captured immigrants and watch them piss themselves with fear. But Urrea shows both sides of everything, including the Border Patrol, who will pay out of their own pockets for a new device to save lives.

Once you know all the mistakes illegals make and all the tricks and technology waiting to catch them, Urrea begins to introduce the reader to the poor trusting wretches who are optimistically undertaking this journey. They come from faraway Veracruz in southern Mexico. They have no idea what lies ahead. They’re coming so they can send money to a mother or a wife back home, or send a child to school, or pay for a new roof. Urrea begins with the bags that hold their remains, what they were wearing when their bodies were found, their belt buckles, their underwear.

This is a very special kind of non-fiction. It’s the facts, all right, but presented with liberties, convincingly brought to life even though the author wasn’t there and never met the survivors. It’s all imaginative re-creation, educated guesswork, exhaustive research and most-likely scenarios, a novelistic bringing-to-life of the taped interviews and records, infusing the men with the feelings and thoughts of characters. At times The Devil’s Highway does a border crossing of its own between non-fiction and historical fiction, incorporating the strengths of both.

The next-to-last chapter includes an exceptionally surreal moment for non-fiction: Urrea takes you into the fourteen body bags being transported to the medical examiner in Tucson, into the minds of the dead men – an artificial technique that might have seemed strained and unnecessary were it not such a heartfelt memorial to each of the men, name by name, what little is known, a profoundly moving elegy to the trusting men who died. Not many writers could have pulled it off. Not many would have dared to try.

Slowly Urrea draws all his threads together, and the hapless band of illegals set out with the young rocker guide called Mendez. In excruciating detail Urrea lets you know what it’s like to die slowly from a merciless sun, and once you know exactly how it will happen, you watch the men start to go through each stage, slowly cooking to death, deceived by their guide, perishing for their dreams, some of them just as the rescuing helicopters finally arrive.

At the center of the spiderweb is the enigmatic Mendez, the nineteen-year-old guide, who is either a criminal cold-bloodedly leaving twenty-six walkers behind to die in the sun, or else a stupid, reckless young lout who won’t admit he doesn’t know where he’s going, whose failed attempt to be a solo guide turns him inadvertently into a mass murderer.

A nineteen-year-old peer for five thousand college freshmen to discuss!

Lest you fail to appreciate the cost of this border drama in tax dollars, Urrea gives you the sobering figures per body, the skyrocketing costs of hospitalization, transport and burial. But he’s got plenty of surprising facts to leave you with as you close the book, not least of which is how much revenue illegal immigrants bring into this country. As one Mexican politician says, “We have inserted twelve million workers into the United States – it is already Mexico! We have won the war!”

The University of Washington’s challenging 2008 Common Book is a thrilling choice, a provocative, humanitarian examination of an ongoing modern tragedy, a perfect tool to engage students with the struggles of the real world and to stir up passionate dialogue about one of the moral crises of our time.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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