Across a Hundred Mountains by Reyna Grande (Atria), 258 pages $31.75 cloth Rating: NNNN Rating: NNN
It's an old story, one played out every day in towns and villages across Mexico - fathers, sons and brothers leaving for el otro lado, paying unscrupulous "coyotes" to smuggle them across the border to the U.S., where they hope to find jobs that will feed the families left behind.
So it's no easy task, especially for a first-time novelist, to bring a fresh approach to the subject. Mexican-American writer Reyna Grande meets the challenge in beautiful prose that drags you across the frontier and leaves you gasping at the injustices of life.
Across A Hundred Mountains tells the story of two women - one Mexican, the other Chicana living in California - searching for the fathers who left home when they were girls and were never heard from again. Part mystery, part saga, it's about what happens to the women and children who find themselves abandoned on the Mexican side.
The subject is close to Grande's heart; her parents left her in the care of her grandmother when she was five, and she didn't join them in the United States until four years later. The sense of loss is palpable, and she writes with insight and compassion. But there's a big problem with the format.
Told in alternating chapters by both women, the two stories cross and re-cross more times than the coyotes traverse the border. I found myself constantly flipping back, thinking I'd misread something. Plus, there were an awful lot of coincidences, and by the end I felt like I'd been cheated.
Like her main character, Adelina, Grande has undertaken a task of huge proportions. Across A Hundred Mountains is an impressive first novel, but it doesn't always work.