Thursday, March 14, 2019

Nonfiction Review: The Devil's Highway

I downloaded the audiobook The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea onto my iPod last fall for Nonfiction November, but I ran out of time to listen to it. Then, I pitched a book column to my editor at Shelf Awareness for Cinco de Mayo and included this real-life immigration story on my list. When my article idea was accepted, I had extra motivation to finally listen to this stunning true story that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. What took me so long?

Urrea, a novelist, memoirist, and journalist, delves deep into a story that made newspaper headlines in May 2001, when a group of 26 men attempted to cross on foot from Mexico into the United States along a desolate stretch of desert in Arizona known as The Devil's Highway. The men they paid to lead them (known as coyotes) got lost, and the men wandered for many days in the scorching heat, with very little water and no food, sometimes walking in circles without realizing it. A member of the U.S. border patrol finally spotted one of them and in rescuing him, as is their job, he was stunned to learn there were 25 more of them out there somewhere in the desert. The border patrol leapt into action and began a thorough and wide-ranging search, but for fourteen of the men, they were too late. Only twelve of the men who went into the Devil's Highway came out, and their full story only gradually came to light, thanks to Urrea's extensive research and interviews.

My first thought after listening to this audiobook was simply, "Wow." Urrea tells this incredible true story with unflinching truth and fairness, laying out the details and building the story as a novelist would. He takes time to help readers get to know each of the characters - the 26 men who entered the desert (because they were each individuals with families and lives and hopes) as well as the courageous border patrol officers who saved as many of them as possible and found and cared for the remains of the rest. Though, of course, immigration is even more of a hot-button topic now than it was when Urrea first published this book in 2004, he does not tell this story from any particular political point of view but from a human point of view as a journalist, focusing in on the people involved and how this devastating event affected them, both the walkers and their rescuers, and on the bare facts of what happened. One can't help to think, though, that this story is just one of thousands of border crossings, deaths, and families affected over the past decades, and that thought is mind-blowing because this one tragedy is so devastating. It's a riveting, powerful, and thought-provoking book that everyone - on all sides of the immigration debate - should read.

272 pages, Little Brown
Hachette Audio
I received this audiobook free from SYNC, which starts up again at the end of April!

After finishing this book, I wanted to know more about Urrea and especially his thoughts on what is happening with immigration today, and how things have changed on the border since 2001. So, I searched for recent interviews with him, and found this one on Fresh Air from last year...which also made me realize, "Oh! Urrea is that author, who published the novel, The House of Broken Angels" that received so much critical acclaim last year. That one has just moved way up my must-read list. The interview is mostly about his novel, though Terry Gross does talk to him about The Devil's Highway and the border today, as well.

Listen to a sample of the audiobook, read by the author. His voice, reading this story, is absolutely mesmerizing.

You can purchase The Devil's Highway from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order The Devil's Highway from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. My goodness this sounds really good and really intense. And what timing that you read it now during all the horrible immigration / wall discussions going on.

    1. Yes! It was one of SYNC's freebie choices last summer - I suspect they had current events in mind! Very timely to be reminded of this horrifying disaster.