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Southwest Book Review: Luis Urrea's 'By The Lake Of Sleeping Children'

KNAU's Southwest Book Reviewer, Mary Sojourner, started the New Year by reading something old. 2016 marks exactly two decades since Luis Urrea's book By the Lake of Sleeping Children was published. It portrays the sharp contrast between what poverty looks like on both the north and south sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. For Sojourner, the book echoes her belief in the stunning disparity between surviving the holidays...and truly surviving. 

We have just emerged from the holidays, a time that is for so many a pressured chaos of what to buy, what to cook and what travel plans to be waded through. I spent New Year's Eve re-reading Luis Urrea's fierce and tender book, By The Lake of Sleeping Children and learned just how easy the worst holiday stress is for most of us. 

The story is not about a tranquil expanse of bright water. The lake is a foul pond near "El Dompe", Tijuana's former garbage dump. To visit the lake is to walk into the heart of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The children are not sleeping. They are disintegrating. They have been buried on the decomposing shore of the lake and drift in the water - becoming particles, food for scavenging gulls.

Urrea writes about crises born from unimaginable poverty - and with his remarkable details and compassion insists we imagine the lives of people who not only live on the edge of "El Dompe", but forage in it for food, clothing and the very architecture of their lives.

He introduces us to the ferocious Negra, who grew up in the dump and, when seven months pregnant, beat the daylights out of another woman who encroached on her territory. He writes about Felix, a young boy...He was scruffy and thin. He had freckles and lighter hair than all the other boys...He was always picking fights he had no hope of winning. Urrea befriends the kid and learns - after the boy trusts him a little - that the boots Felix wears with such pride have no soles.

Urrea moves among the residents of "El Dompe" not as a tourist looking for the gritty side of life. He was born on the border. He worked in a mission to the people of that stinking, dangerous place. From that reality, he has given us his life and the lives of coyotes, orphans, women with no choice but to sell themselves - and stories of a human loyalty forged from having nothing. 

Mary Sojourner is the author of three novels: Sisters of the Dream Northland Publishers, 1989; Going Through Ghosts, University of Nevada Press, 2010 and 29, Torrey House Press, 2014; the short story collection, Delicate, Nevermore Press, 2001 and Scribner, 2004; essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest University of Nevada Press, 2002 and 2004; memoir, Solace: rituals of loss and desire, Scribner, 2004; and memoir/self-help guide, She Bets Her Life, Seal Press, 2010. She has been a ten-year NPR commentator and now reviews books for KNAU’s Southwest Book Reviews. She’s the author of op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network and dozens of other publications. She was chosen as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2007 by the Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, ASU.
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