This vital book about living between two borders tells an urgent family story
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Two reasons bring the Sprawling, brawling de La Cruz clan together over the course of a single wild weekend in San Diego: first, the funeral service for Mamá América, nearly 100 but still feisty when she went; then a party to mark the 70th year for her son, Big Angel. Both will celebrate lives well lived, and both, though only a few guests know it, will also be a goodbye. Cancer is eating away at Big Angel, the fierce family patriarch now reduced to sponge baths and skin stretched over bones. But there are still scores to settle, a flood of memories to grapple with, and old wrongs to lay to rest: the baby half-brother, now a college professor, who bears the scarlet letter of his Anglo mother; the middle-aged daughter adrift; more than one woman mourning a boy gone too soon.
The House of Broken Angels, the latest from the prolific Mexican-born writer and novelist Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway, The Hummingbird’s Daughter), is a big, messy, warmhearted epic, so overflowing with color and character its strands are sometimes hard to follow without keeping a homemade flowchart in the margins. With bird’s-eye agility, Urrea moves between borders and generations, alighting on buried secrets and half-finished anecdotes before breezing on to the next one and back again. His narrative is imbued with the timeless texture of every immigrant’s hopes and dreams, like this snapshot of an estranged father and son united, at least temporarily, by a determination to learn their adopted language: “Two men at the kitchen table with cigarettes and coffee and used dictionaries. They captured new words and pinned them like butterflies of every hue. ‘Aardvark,’ ‘bramble,’ ‘challenge,’ ‘defiance.’ ” There are painfully 2018 moments, too, like the “Build the Wall” banner strung over a freeway overpass, or the stranger who sidles up at a Target Starbucks and calmly asserts her right to white supremacy. But Urrea’s Angels carries them all — good and ugly, broken and beautiful — without judgment, generous to the last breath. B+