In May 2001, twenty-six migrant men crossed the Arizona border from Mexico into the deadliest stretch of American desert known as the Devil's Highway. They came with hopes and dreams of creating a better life for their families back home, but ultimately ended up wandering the wilderness of southern Arizona for days. By the time they were finally found, only twelve made it out alive. It was the largest loss of life that had occurred during an illegal border crossing, and it garnered world-wide media attention. In The Devil's Highway, author Luis Alberto Urrea chronicles the lives of these men and their journey through a feat of investigative journalism that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Like many book clubs across America, mine put forward American Dirt as a potential read just before it was actually published. Of course, right around the same time, a great deal of controversy began swirling around it, so for this month's selection, our leader gave us the options of reading it, or reading the "own voices" alternative The Devil's Highway, or reading both for comparison. A part of me would have liked to read both, but since I didn't have time for an extra book this month, I opted for the "own voices" story to get a more authentic look at the issue of illegal immigration. I should also mention that there is a significant difference between the two books. American Dirt is a fictional novel, while The Devil's Highway is a non-fiction book that tells a true story that actually happened in Arizona's southern desert region back in 2001. The Devil's Highway was originally published in 2004, and while much has changed in the sixteen years since, many things have remained the same, in particular the reasons why many migrants choose to make such a treacherous journey as well as the criminal dealings of many coyotes. So while the book is an older one, it still paints a valid portrait of life at the U.S./Mexico border and of the migrants who enter illegally.
This is the haunting and heartbreaking story of twenty-six migrants who entered the U.S. on May 19, 2001 with hopes and dreams of making some money to take back home to create a better life for their families. However, their main guide, a young coyote with hopes and dreams of his own, was relatively inexperienced, and it didn't take long for them to become hopelessly lost on the way to a checkpoint where they were to find a ride that would take them to Phoenix. The men and two teenage boys wandered through the desert for the next five days, trying to withstand temperatures ranging from 96-110 degrees. They all started out with at least a gallon of water, but it quickly ran out as it became more and more apparent that their guide had no idea where they were going. Three days into the journey, the two remaining guides collected money from the group, ostensibly to purchase water, and then abandoned their charges to walk ahead at a faster pace to find help - or so they said. They never returned, though, succumbing to the heat themselves many miles further on, while the rest of the group languished in the desert, literally cooking to death in the brutal heat. All told, by May 23, fourteen souls had perished and only a handful of the strongest finally chanced to find a Border Patrol agent who immediately called in a search and rescue for the remaining survivors. It was the largest loss of life in an illegal border crossing, garnering widespread international media attention. It also led to the prosecution of the young surviving coyote and the beginnings of new, more humane border policies that might have been enacted if not for the tragedy of 9/11 that occurred a few months later.
Never having read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea before, I went into reading The Devil's Highway not quite knowing what to expect, only that the cover blurb of the story deeply interested me. I was drawn in, eagerly wanting to find out exactly what happened to these migrants and where everything went wrong for them. I felt that the author definitely did justice to their memory. In fact, he mentions in the afterword that because of the lack of information sharing, some of the men's families didn't even know precisely what their loved ones' final days were like until reading this book, which ended up being a cathartic experience that helped them find closure. I was also extremely impressed with Mr. Urrea's balanced and non-judgmental journalistic style. He never inserted any of his own opinions or prejudices into the narrative, always telling the story from a neutral place and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. In fact, he was extremely fair to all involved - migrants, coyotes, and Border Patrol, as well as other law enforcement officers and players in this story - never demonizing anyone. In some ways, I found this a bit frustrating, because I never quite knew where he stood on the issue, but at the same time, I admired him for being able to do so. With this being the case, I think this book would be accessible to anyone regardless of their political leanings on this sensitive subject. The author is a little more forthright about his views in the afterword, which is a new follow-up that's only found in the tenth anniversary edition of the book, a passage which I found to be pretty enlightening.
The main reason I dropped the rating to four stars is that the author throws out a lot of names of people and places that I had a hard time keeping straight. I wanted so much to be involved in a reverent way in the tragic story of these men's lives, so not always knowing who he was referring to was a downside. He did explain each of the men's circumstances at various points throughout the story, but twenty-six is a lot of people to remember, and that didn't include all the other players as well. Also, in spite of being an Arizonan, I was unfamiliar with some of the places mentioned, so a map would have been really helpful. There is a map at the front of the book but it contains very little detail beyond a handful of major landmarks and the path the men took. The final small issue I had was that Mr. Urrea has a somewhat choppy writing style. Some of this was a result of his taking little detours from the migrants' narrative to explain certain things, such as the stages of hyperthermia. A lot of this information was interesting and appreciated, but it did interrupt the flow of the story. Other times it simply appeared to be the way the author writes, which only served to muddy the waters and add to my confusion. On the other hand, I freely admit that there were passages where he created some truly beautiful turns of phrase. Other than my few small complaints, The Devil's Highway was a good book, and I really appreciated being able to read this story through the lens of an "own voices" author who treated it in a manner befitting the gravity of the narrative and who has spent a great deal of time immersing himself in the subject and researching the situation at the border. It was an enlightening story that has left me open to checking out some of the author's other work, both fiction and non-fiction.
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