Today’s team review is from Olga.
Olga blogs here https://olganm.wordpress.com/
Olga has been reading El Norte by Harald Johnson
This is a new author to me, but I had read several reviews of his previous novels and liked the sound of this one and the setting. I was also intrigued to see how well the author would manage in a contemporary setting, as his previous novels were historical.
If you enjoy road novels (and movies, as this is a very cinematic story) full of fast-paced action, with a young, troubled, and likeable hero/protagonist and a motley crew of companions he gathers along the way, full of risky and dangerous situations, with a corrupt and heartless baddie you’ll love to hate, which touches upon many stories we have read or watched on the news (the migrant plea, human trafficking, sex-trade and sex-slavery, anxiety disorder, gangs and cartels, police corruption) you will enjoy El Norte.
There are murders, kidnappings, and the protagonist is being chased because of some information he holds that could get somebody else into trouble, and those hunting him (well, there is one man, but he counts on many others for assistance) will go to any lengths to ensure they get it.
No matter how serious some of the topics are, though: this is a novel that aims to entertain, and it is not a treatise or an in-depth study of any of those subjects. There are no endless and overly detailed descriptions of locations or events, although we do get moments when the narrative seems to focus on a particular detail (it might be a tattoo, the food the characters are eating, the way somebody pronounces a word, an item of jewellery, a movement, a coyote…) that are effective in putting us in the character’s shoes, even though the novel is written in the third person. We mostly follow Jager, the protagonist, and experience what he feels and thinks, but there are some brief chapters from some other characters’ points of view, and that not only give us a wider perspective, but it also increases the suspense and tension, as sometimes we know what is coming (or suspect it) ahead of the protagonist.
This novel is a coming-of-age story, where we see Jager start the story as an introverted and fairly naïve young man suffering from anxiety, and slowly become a confident, resourceful, and strong young man, who can face any challenges and lead others. He is pretty lost, hesitant, and feeling overwhelmed by what has happened (and, of course, I cannot reveal the details of the plot) at the beginning of his quest/adventure, a bit like most readers would feel in those circumstances, but then he discovers things about him (and his family as well), he didn’t know. I kept thinking of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as I read the novel, but you can read it and reach your own conclusions.
This is not a novel that digs deep into the psychology of the characters, and it does focus mostly on the plot, which moves relentlessly forward. Don’t expect to learn much about the background of most of the characters that appear, and even the protagonist doesn’t have much time to dwell on his life and his past, other than a few doubts and moments of self-reflection. There is too much at stake, and you won’t find long intimate discussions about people’s feelings, dreams, goals, or circumstances in life. That doesn’t mean readers will find it difficult to connect with the characters. It is impossible not to root for the protagonist, and even if sometimes we might question his decisions, he never shies away from his responsibilities and is loyal to a fault. And without revealing anything, I can say that there are other characters most readers will take to. I particularly appreciated the way the author portrays anonymous generous souls who aid the protagonist, his friends, and many others trying to get to the North, in any way they can. They might have very little, but they are happy to share it with those who need it more. We get to see the dark side of migration and learn more about those who traffic on people’s hopes and desperation, but there are rays of hope along the way as well.
Much of what happens is taken at face value, and the way the story is told made me think of an action movie, as I have already said, and also of classic YA adventure stories, with the up-to-date news-worthy topics giving it a contemporary feel. There are words and expressions in Spanish (from the various Central-American countries they visit, and Mexico), but those are translated and explained within the text, and the story is an easy read that moves at a vertiginous pace.
I will not elaborate on the ending, as I have made some passing comments about the way the protagonist grows and matures through the story, and although as is the case in these kinds of action and adventure novels, some suspension of disbelief is required, this is not more than would be expected. The ending is appropriate to the story and satisfying, and I’ll leave it at that.
I must add that there is an author’s note/interview, where Johnson answers a number of questions about the novel. This will prove invaluable for book clubs (and it will make a good choice, in my opinion, as there is plenty of food for discussion here), and I enjoyed reading it and having some of my own impressions and thoughts confirmed. The author mentions the book American Dirt (by Jeanine Cummins) and a possible comparison, but although the book is on my list, I haven’t gotten to it yet, so I won’t comment, although I am aware of the controversy.
So, if you’re looking for a quick read, with a classic YA adventure novel feel set in contemporary times, full of action, dangers, found families, and a quest/journey through Central America and Mexico that you’d love to watch on the big screen, jump onto El Norte.
A thrilling, on-the-run, survival adventure across four countries.
Jager Flores is an introverted Texas high-school graduate on a family trip to Roatán, Honduras, to celebrate.
But when Jager’s careful world is blown apart, the panicked boy goes into hiding and then creates a bond with an unlikely ally to stay one step ahead of his violent pursuers.
Now, traveling with a team of immigrants and with corrupt DEA agents after him as he heads back to El Norte (the U.S.), Jager must find the strength in himself to survive and to get justice for his family.
If you’re a fan of the suspense thriller novels of Lee Child, David Baldacci, or Dan Brown, you’ll relish this fast-moving, action-packed story from TV/movie-optioned author Harald Johnson.
“Now, we both hunted.”