Once again I have Tony to thank for writing about this wonderful book. His description of an affectionate humorous portrait of an extended family appealed to me; those qualities were enhanced by listening to the author read it.
It is the story of three generations of a Mexican-American family in San Diego. It centers on Big Angel as we learn the stories of him, his father’s and children’s generations. The story includes his grandfather’s time in Los Angeles when he had tried to enlist to fight in World War I, to the deportations that occurred in 1932 when 2 million were sent across the border, to Big Angel’s escape from his horrific situation across the border again to San Diego, to the present day.
The characters we get to know best in this large cast include Big Angel, who at 70 years old is near death, his beloved wife Perla, his half brother Little Angel, his wife’s sister La Gloriosa, and his daughter Minnie. The story begins the day before the big birthday party for Big Angel with the funeral of his mother, Mamá América. Though Big Angel always prided himself on being on time, he woke late that morning and with his immediate family made a dramatic appearance at the funeral, disrupting the scolding minister to great comic effect.
Big Angel arrived in the US as a teenager with nothing and by dent of his hard work and intelligence, he achieved a middle class existence, in charge of the computers for the utility company. He had a complicated connection to his half brother Little Angel with whom he shared a father. Don Antonio had left Mamá América for Betty, “all Indiana milk and honey.” Don Antonio is described as fuming in the corner of their apartment: “he oozed cigarette smoke from his mouth and nostrils like a burning barn.” Little Angel had become a professor and lived in Seattle but the fear of Big Angel’s displeasure drove him to arrive early for the funeral of Mamá América.
There’s La Gloriosa, Perla’s beautiful sister, so beautiful that she is known only by this attribution; no one knew her actual name. When young, Perla and her sisters survived by opening a restaurant and La Gloriosa’s considerable contribution was attracting the customers with her beauty. Even in her 60s she knew that bringing her beauty to bear on any gathering was her job. The author does pull back the curtain on La Gloriosa for us and her sadness and kindness to others comes into view.
It was decided that Mamá América’s funeral would not delay Big Angel’s birthday party. And what a party it is. As the party goes on we meet more and more of the outer fringes of the family (and they are increasingly odd characters). The climax is as outlandish as one could possibly imagine but completely satisfying. Big Angel, despite his infirmity is yet again again heroic in support of his family.
Luis Alberto Urrea, The House of Broken Angels, Little, Brown and Company, 2018, 336 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.