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The River Flows North

The beauty of Graciela Limon’s writing lies in her unadorned, tell-it-like-it-is style. While you’re reading, you don’t get tripped up and mesmerized by crafty phrases and descriptions so original that you have to stop and think in order to actually see them. All you see in The River Flows North is character. People. Their painful pasts, difficult voyages, and hopeful futures.

The beauty of Graciela Limon’s writing lies in her unadorned, tell-it-like-it-is style. While you’re reading, you don’t get tripped up and mesmerized by crafty phrases and descriptions so original that you have to stop and think in order to actually see them. All you see in The River Flows North is character. People. Their painful pasts, difficult voyages, and hopeful futures.

The novel covers the journey of seven Mexicans and their guide, Leonardo Cerda, across the desert where they hope to slip into the United States via la Ocho, or Interstate 8. Dona Encarnacion Padilla says,

I joined a group of migrants on the verge of crossing El Gran Desierto. I did not know their names, but I recognized the expression on their faces. There was sadness because something had uprooted them, yet there was also hope that a new life waited for them.

In each chapter, Limon’s characters tell his or her story of how they ended up on the dangerous immigration path. Whether the story is told to the other travelers, such as the elderly Don Julio Escalante’s tale, or told only to the reader, such as the tragic history of Menda Fuentes, you begin to see the wide spectrum of catalysts that drive these very different people to take the five day trip through a desert where “many migrants vanish without a trace.”

Even the shifty Cerda, who nobody trusts, has a story to tell. Torn between being “texano or mexicano,” where his family frequently shifted during Cerda’s youth, he tells us that he never really fit in anywhere. On top of questioning his national identity, he was the odd boy out in his family. After feeling like a frequent disappointment, he finally became a nomad and eventually a guide where he takes people through the Arizona desert to Interstate 8 for a high fee. He admits sadly that he “was a real asshole.” Limon does an excellent job of showing us that even Cerda, like the other characters, and most importantly, like the reader, is still, and merely, a human.

While the stories are heart wrenching and create a deep empathy within the reader, they are not wholly original. They are tales of death and loss, hope and disappointment, war and abuse. We’ve heard them all before, but this actually adds to the moving nature of Limon’s book. She isn’t writing a sensationalist novel. She’s not that songwriter who writes a sad song for the ratings. These stories feel real, and it is as if we are reading a collection of memoirs, interviews of people who actually attempted the difficult expedition into a life of hope and freedom.

Although it’s the individual stories that Limon focuses on, and the relationships between the migrants are subtle, the intercommunication is still a major part of the novel. Both the moments of utter distrust as well as the surreal instances of joyous comradeship mirror the painfully beautiful contradiction of the lives we all know. All of the relationships and stories feel so obvious and basic that you wonder why you didn’t see the truth in them before. It’s as if they are all stories we have inside of us somewhere, our own histories.

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