A rather interesting concept has been floating around the country of late that attempts to get participants from individual communities on the same page – both literally and figuratively. Imagine, as organizers of such reader-oriented conspiracies most certainly do, everyone you run into packing the same book under their arm.
In Park City, the program, which has been underway a few years now, is called "One Book One Community" and has featured "The Bean Tree" by Barbara Kingsolver, "In the Time of the Butterflies" by Julia Alvarez, and "The Namesake" by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, among others. Not too shabby company, indeed.
Elsewhere, they go under such monikers as "The Mayors Book Club" (Austin), "One City One Book" (San Francisco), and "Salt Lake City Reads Together." The attempt is to both motivate reading and the discussion of those themes brought to the fore by whatever intellectual content exists between the covers.
These last three cities gain mention here due to the fact that, recently, all three chose works by the wonderfully lyrical Latino author Luis Alberto Urrea for their community read. The fact that Urrea (pronounced oo-RAY-ah) will return once more to speak at the Greater Salt Lake Book Festival at the downtown City Library this Saturday also comes into play.
Ever since reading the hilarious essay of Urrea’s included in the Edward Abbey posthumous tribute collection, "Resist Much, Obey Little," it has been impossible to jump off this guy’s bandwagon. The title of the compilation came from Walt Whitman, of course, and resided as a mission statement in Abbey’s gut for his entire life.
Back when the Book Festival took place at Westminster College, and as the result of stalking, laying-in-wait, and assuming the obviously vacant "roadie" position in his non-existent entourage, initial contact was made. It is somewhat less than the obsession of a "dead head," but not all that much.
His return to the festival last year came during a book tour for "The Hummingbird’s Daughter," as majestic and sprawling a work as has come down the literary pike in quite a spell. Set in revolutionary Mexico, the story recounts the survival and spiritual journeys of Urrea’s great-aunt Teresita, an illegitimate mestizo who becomes a legendary and sainted healer. She had "the gift," as they say.
Urrea, who took over two decades to research and write the book, has produced an epic tale that is totally beyond commentary sufficient to its worth. Or, as one reviewer put it, "’The Hummingbird’s Daughter’ is a sumptuous, dazzling novel to which no review can do justice; one simply must read it."
And that is just what those folks involved in San Francisco’s "One City One Book" communal read are up to as we speak. San Francisco, arguably one of the best-read communities on the planet, chose Luis Alberto Urrea and "The Hummingbird’s Daughter," among all the other books out there, for their literary gravitational centerpiece this year. Actually, we shouldn’t lavish too much praise on the selectors, something this worthy is a no-brainer.
Now Austin, Texas, and Salt Lake City, having chosen yet another Urrea masterwork around which to gather their reading and thinking flocks, are currently on a quite different page. "The Devil’s Highway" drags you across the ovenlike no-man’s-land of the Sonora-Arizona border with the true story of a group of "illegals" who are left high and very dry.
As is most always the case, they were looking to improve their lot in life and send money home to their worried and waiting families. Urrea takes you back to their Vera Cruz shacks while introducing family and friends. He has a way of developing characters fully in a prose so artful it literally hurts.
You get to know each and every one and grow to care deeply for most all of them. Against a backdrop of ultimate risk, they journey north and, once gathered in place, sandwiched between their "coyote" and "pollo" exploiters, they prepare for that harsh and desolate "crux move" across the border, along what has come to be known as "the devil’s highway."
It is in Urrea’s art that ultimate human beauty and ultimate human horror are allowed to stew in the same pot. He connects you to what were once distant sensibilities in ways in ways you never dreamed possible. You’ll never look at the recent generations of Park City Hispanics the same again. You will want to know their stories, where they started from and where and how they crossed the border.
And, no doubt, this time, it will be the issues of "The Devil’s Highway" that Urrea will speak to when he takes the main auditorium stage at 5 p.m. Saturday as the 2006 Greater Salt Lake Book Festival begins to wind down. People who read his work become moved to engage – both him and each other.
And, since many in the area have recently fallen under his literary spell, there should be a generous turnout. They will arrive with questions and comments and will, most assuredly, sing his praise. For when you read Luis Alberto Urrea, you become part of him and his lyrical landscape. You cross many borders together, both in the heart and upon the land.
That’s the way it is with literature at Urrea’s level. You become one with his many fleshed-out characters such as the enormously captivating Teresita and Don Thomas and Segundo and Huila in "The Hummingbird’s Daughter." Not to mention the exquisite Mexican landscapes of Sinaloa and Sonora.
And then there are those 26 men who attempted to change the futures of families by doing what so many others had done before, crossing terra incognita and entering upon a "new world" of opportunity, and the border patrolmen who both anguished for their plight and attempted to deter them.
But when all is said and done, all that really matters is what a cool dude Luis Alberto Urrea is. What a quick mind. What an infectious smile. And then there are those elements of humor and humility that lend themselves so effectively to such surroundings. He’s the real deal. Viva Luis!
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