House of Broken Angels
by Luis Alberto Urrea
Read Feb 2019
This book tells a family saga through the eyes of two Angels in the family — Big Angel and his half-brother Little Angel—over the course of two days. The first day the family has gathered for Big Angel’s mother’s (unexpected) funeral and the second the very next day, a planned celebration of Big Angel’s 70th birthday, which all know will be his last birthday. Little Angel has returned for the funeral and birthday party from northern California where he now lives.
Big Angel is dying, presumably of cancer, and is primarily bed-ridden needing help to dress and toilet. His daughter and wife tend to him. In the opening section, Big Angel is struggling to get himself and his family to his mother’s funeral on time. He prides himself on not running on “Mexican time”, although his family is less reliable in that regard. Big Angel was born in Mexico as were his brothers and sisters, wife, and her children from a previous marriage. All migrate across the border when that wasn’t terribly difficult and in fact they move across the border fairly frequently while Big Angel is younger. Big Angel has been in love with his wife since he first saw her when a teenager but they were separated for a variety of reasons and only married after he returned home and she has two sons. Big Angel treats her children as his own although they don’t always appreciate him while growing up. Big Angel is proud that he moved from a laborer as a young man to an IT specialist for a local company.
Big Angel is also proud that he was able to buy his family a nice house. His thoughts about it provide a taste of the wonderful language of the book: “All the houses had bars on the windows, which scared outsiders but which nobody from there even saw. None of the grannies on the streets wanted some imagined panuco to break in and steal their Franklin Mint collector plates. John Wayne and angels defining little blond kids with flaming swords hung on kitchen walls all down the street……All the houses had four bedrooms and a living room, two bathrooms and a nice kitchen/dining area by the sliding door to the quarter-acre backyard. And myriad garage kingdoms developed as unemployed children came home to Mama’. “
As Big Angel lies in his bed and recalls his past for us, he is writing a gratitude book filled with sentences, phrases, and single words describing how he is feeling and what he is remembering:
“Changing the world
Poco a poco
A little better
Right here, right now”
Little Angel is Big Angel’s half-brother. Big Angel’s Mexican father left his Mexican mother and large family to be with a white woman in the US. They had a single child, known to the family as Little Angel. Little Angel was raised apart from the rest of the family and outside the Latino culture, although Big Angel would visit occasionally after he had his own family. Little Angel has returned for the family events from his current home in northern California where he teaches. His sections express his feelings of awkwardness being with this family who he doesn’t really know or understand and who he thinks feel he’s not really part of the family. The sections describing his interactions with some of the family members are quite a hoot.
Eventually Big Angel’s bed becomes a place where various family members hang out with him and share in ways we wish we could share with our own family. The big sprawling party going on outside the room contrasts with the intimacy of lying on Big Angel’s bed. Talking with him both parties knowing he is dying provides them a unique environment for sharing. Little Angel tells Big Angel “To be here now, to see what you have made, humbles me. The good parts and the bad. It doesn’t matter. I thought I was going to save the world, and here you were all along, changing things day by day, minute by minute.”
The title includes the term “Broken Angels”. While I am not sure the author had anything to do with the title, it does prompt one to think about the definition of a “broken person”, what a “well-lived life” is, and whether any of the Angels or other characters in the book (or are they all angels?) are broken. This reader concluded that neither Angel was broken although they had suffered disappointments and had at time doubted themselves. A book discussion facilitator suggested we consider whether “their cracks had been filled with gold”. This reader can support that concept.
The story at times feels a little unorganized leading the reader to wonder where things are going. But the narrative does always go somewhere, sometimes in surprising ways. It generates the feel of the big day and its long party for Big Angel very well. The book has much to absorb on every page. While many of the interactions between family members, their hopes, dreams, and disappointments are quite universal, the reader is hearing a Mexican voice speaking about a particular Mexican’s family’s life and we are expanded as a result of listening to it.