Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rootless Lit: The Devil's Highway: A True Story

"Rootless lit" - Literature that speaks to travel, migration, displacement, exploration, discovery, transience, divesting of stuff, or portability. 

Rootless lit book review: The Devil's Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea

Credit: Amazon

This is the story of the desert passage undocumented immigrants make between Mexico and the U.S. Many die en route because of lack of water and the heat. More specifically, it is the story of the Yuma 14, when fourteen men from one group died in 2001.

There were parts of this book, especially at the end, where it was painful to read. Mr. Urrea described the final hours of the dead in vivid, personal detail. One description particularly stands out for its horrific sadness. A survivor reported: "One of the boys went crazy and started jumping up and down. He started screaming, 'Mama! Mama! I don't want to die!' He ran up to a big cactus and started smashing his face against it. I don't know what his name was." The boy was 16 years old.

About another who died, Mr. Urrea wrote: "Nobody knows the name of the man who took off all his clothes. It was madness, surely. He removed his slacks, folded them, and put them on the ground. Then he took off his underwear, laid it neatly on the pants. He removed his shirt and undershirt and squared them away with the pants. As if he didn't want to leave a mess. ...He lay on his back and stared into the sun until he died."

I like how Mr. Urrea spoke for the dead as they rode in their body bags in the air-conditioned hearses.

Mr. Urrea's description of the Border Patrol's activities seemed nuanced and even-handed to me. He offers thoughtful notes in the last chapter regarding the financial costs and benefits of undocumented immigrants, of other violences perpetrated in and around the desert border.

It's difficult to describe Mr. Urrea's writing style other than to say it is personal, often in second person narrative. His portrayal of almost all of the players in the undocumented migrant universe is empathetic. Exceptions are the drug gangsters and the coyotes they run, plus certain aspects of the Mexican government machine.

Whatever one's position on migration, this book forces the reader to acknowledge the immigrants' humanity. At least for a day or two.

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