The Devil’s Highway – A True Story

I was going to stop reading The Devil’s Highway after I almost started crying on the train ride home on Monday. This is the story of 26 men who tried crossed the U.S. / Mexico border on foot. They got lost in the desert. Fourteen of them died. The part that almost did me in? When the author, Luis Alberto Urrea, lists the things the Border Patrol agents found the bodies: a rooster belt buckle, a folded letter, green socks with matching boxers, a tattoo of a name: Maria, a pocket mirror, Mexican coins, a wallet, a faded photo ID. But I couldn’t stop reading. I started this book on Monday and now I’m finished.

The writing is so engaging and so poetic and surreal, it is beautiful, but at the same horrific. I couldn’t put it down. It is the all of the details that you read about that make this book so nightmarish. When Urrea goes through the step by step process how hyperthermia and heat stroke affect the human body (“Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream”). The way the bodies looked like when they were discovered by the border patrol (“Have you ever seen a mummy from ancient Egypt? That gives you an idea. They looked shriveled up”). How the men looked in death (“The dead have open mouths and white teeth. They are stretched in angular poses, caught in the last gasps or shouts, their eyes burned an eerie red by the sun. Many of them are naked. Some have dirt in their mouths . . . They look like roadside attractions, like wax-and-paper torsos in a gas station Dungeon of Terror”). How the women at at the Mexican consulate in Tuscon light candles for each body that is found in the desert. The magical realism of the landscape, the Devil’s Highway becomes the main character of this book. The desert in this book is terrifying (“Desert spirits of a dark and mysterious nature have always traveled these trails. From the beginning, the highway has always lacked grace – those who worship desert gods know them to favor retribution over the tender dove of forgiveness. In Desolation, doves are at the bottom of the food chain. Tohono O’Odham poet Ofelia Zepeda has pointed out that rosaries and Hail Marys don’t work out here. ‘You need a new kind of payers,’ she says ‘to negotiate with this land.’ “)

So, an emotionally difficult read. But also, an important read. Definitely one of the best books written about the border. I found the author’s website and his blog, which he actually seems to update a lot. It’s interesting to go back and read his entries about this book; to read about his frustrations with his book tour, because whenever he tried to give a speech or lecture at a college or bookstore there was always someone in the audience yelling at him about how Mexicans are destroying America, and that he must hate America and accuse him of being unpatriotic. Still, other entries are really funny, especially the entries about his children. I plan to read his other books; his newest one is The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a historical fiction novel based on his family’s history that took him 20 years to research.

Among other things that I am thankful for, including being able to live comfortably in a country where I have citizenship, I am glad I don’t live anywhere near the desert.

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