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The House of Broken Angels


The House of Broken Angels

The joys of reading include the journeys often discovered by occasionally traveling the pages of a novel to fresh and different places. Meeting an author for the first time unlocks adventures and experiences. Luis Alberto Urrea did not need me to discover him, as he is already an accomplished writer. The novelist of the award-winning THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY and THE HUMMINGBIRD’S DAUGHTER toiled for 10 years before his first book, ACROSS THE WIRE, was published. During that time, the struggling writer was a relief worker in poor areas of Tijuana, and worked countless other odd jobs as an actor and columnist, editor and cartoonist for various publications.

In March, Urrea made his regular appearance at the Tucson Festival of Books. 2018 marked the 10th anniversary of the event, which now draws more than 100,000 attendees to a weekend of books and authors. Urrea has gone each year, and this time his attendance purposely coincided with the release of his new novel, THE HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS, which is in the great tradition of writers around the world --- a family saga. In this case, the de la Cruz clan, a multi-generational Mexican-American family, is the subject. The book is principally set during a two-day period in San Diego marking the funeral of the family’s matriarch and the 70th birthday of their eldest son and brother, Big Angel. The story winds its way through generations by flashbacks that take the reader to La Paz and Tijuana. It is a joyous and remarkable journey reminding us that immigrants came to our nation from countries other than Europe.

"[THE HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS] is a joyous and remarkable journey reminding us that immigrants came to our nation from countries other than Europe."

Great writers often mix personal experience into their novels. In an interview, Urrea explained that he did not intend to write this book. But when his brother, Juan, died after a long bout with cancer, the family decided to give him his “last birthday party on earth.” This event inspired the book’s second plot component: the 70th birthday party for Big Angel, who is dying of cancer. Urrea also has written a novel whose unspoken theme is one of politics: “The subtitle of the book should be ‘Go to Hell, Donald,’ remarked Urrea, “because I couldn’t any longer take all the rhetoric, I couldn’t any longer take all the ‘build-the-wall’ propaganda of the ‘bad hombres’ and all of the damage and harm and heartbreak this course in American politics is taking in people’s lives on a daily basis.”

Many members of the de la Cruz family appear on the pages of THE HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS. Little Angel, the half-brother of Big Angel, teaches English in Seattle and has come back to San Diego after a lengthy exile. He is the product of a relationship between his father and an American woman. Little Angel’s return to his community is complex, evoking long-ago memories and rekindling long-forgotten relationships.

Big Angel’s wife is Perla, an undocumented alien who crossed the border with her husband when they were teenagers. The family history recounted here involves relocations to Mexico and returns to the United States, depending on the changing tides of economic conditions. It is a reminder to all of us how ever-changing labor needs often influence border control.

In the end, Urrea reminds us of the important meaningful trait common to all immigrant families. Thanking his daughter for his birthday event, Big Angel attempts to put his thoughts and gratitude into words. He cannot find them, but he tries: “All we do mija is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.” These words, similar to those long-ago words of Emma Lazarus engraved on the Statue of Liberty, serve as a reminder of why America is still the land immigrants aspire to call home.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on April 5, 2018

The House of Broken Angels
by Luis Alberto Urrea

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 031615489X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316154895