Hiram College

Discussion Questions for "Into the Beautiful North"

Questions developed by teaching assistants in Hiram College's First-Year Program

  • One of the strengths of Urrea’s novel is the complexity of the way he portrays attitudes toward immigration, both in Mexico and the United States. Tia Irma, for example, makes derisive comments about immigrants from south of the border, including Colombian immigrants to Mexico, whom she believes are taking Mexican jobs and ruining the Mexican economy. What other evidence of a complex view of immigration do you see in the novel? What point is the novel making about immigration and border issues in Central and North America?
  • Urrea’s novel seems to waver between moments of magical realism to moments of gritty realism. The idyllic setting of Tres Camarones, the fanciful nature of Nayeli’s quest based upon a screening of The Magnificent Seven, and even in the larger-than-life presence of Atomiko, the “ronin” from the Tijuana garbage dump, all evoke the feel of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At the same time, moments of gritty, dangerous reality permeate the novel, such as when Nayeli and her companions are assaulted in the Tijuana hotel. Is this a magical novel with moments of reality, or a realistic novel with moments of magic? What leads you to that conclusion? What does the form of the novel say about its themes?
  • Into the Beautiful North in many ways celebrates strong women, especially Nayeli and Tia Irma. Why then are men given such high importance in Tres Camarones? How does the portrayal compare to larger societal gender roles and expectations? Do you think that the views Nayeli and her gang of girls hold change as their quest progresses?
  • As Into the Beautiful North continues, we are able to observe Nayeli’s growth of character and how she deals with her coming of age. Since this is a story of the coming of age of a Mexican girl maturing on a journey into the United States, is Nayeli’s journey culturally more a Mexican one or an American one? Is the journey of aging similar in Mexican and American society? What makes Nayeli’s journey unique? And in this story, is age held in the same regard as it is in the U.S? How does this influence the dynamics between characters of differing ages, for example between Nayeli and Tia Irma?
  • Many of the characters in Urrea’s novel conform to types, at least on the surface, and are often taunted for their difference. Vampi is regularly teased for her Goth dress and hair, and Tacho is abused several times in the novel because of his homosexuality. Where do you see characters conforming to and diverging from stereotypes? What differences do you see in the way Urrea uses these stereotypes based on a character’s nationality, age, gender, or sexual orientation? And how do the perception of these types change as the characters travel on their quest?
  • In literature that follows the quest archetype, the hero often faces a series of challenges to obtain an object or goal. Often, the story is more about the journey and the hero doesn’t achieve the intended goal. How does Nayeli’s journey fit the mold for the quest story? In what ways does she develop during her quest? By not accomplishing her original goal of bringing her father back to Mexico, what has Nayeli truly achieved?
  • The citizens of Tres Camarones are tied into American culture in Into the Beautiful North, from Vampi’s Goth music tastes to Tia Irma’s love of American movies. What sorts of cultural exchanges do you see between the United States and Mexico in the novel? Is the exchange one sided, or does culture flow freely both ways? Why do you think Urrea chose to depict culture flowing so freely across the border between these countries?
  • The border is of central importance in Into the Beautiful North. The girls’ quest centers on crossing the border, and the novel itself is divided by the border, the first half being called “Sur” and the second “Norte.” At the same time, the border—despite its great wall and heavy security—seems remarkably permeable, not only in terms of moving drugs or people through tunnels underneath it, but also in terms of people, culture and trade goods constantly traversing it. The crossing the girls make in a dangerous and illegal week of hard travel is achieved in an afternoon of air travel by Tia Irma, for example. What is Into the Beautiful North suggesting about the U.S.-Mexican border? In countries as linked as the United States and Mexico, what purpose does a border serve?