Public Media Arts Hub

Author Luis Alberto Urrea (R) beside his oldest brother Juan during his final birthday party. Urrea's novel, "The House of Broken Angels," was inspired by that party.

Laughter can be a sanctuary, says author Luis Alberto Urrea

Our July pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club Now Read This is "The House of Broken Angels" by Luis Alberto Urrea. Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

At its heart, Luis Alberto Urrea's "The House of Broken Angels" is a personal book. Urrea got the idea for the novel, which centers around a blow-out birthday party for the character Big Angel, after his own family held a big birthday party for his eldest brother, Juan, as he was dying of cancer. (Juan is pictured above with Urrea). But while the novel is about death and loss and regret, it is also about joy and humor and laughter as a kind of salve.

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

"My family is hilarious. This fictional family is hilarious. If you came to my house today, you would find out our kids are hilarious," said Urrea. "There is a way to laugh that is cruel and there is a way to laugh that offers sanctuary."

Below, read more of what Urrea was thinking as he wrote, and about his personal connections to the text, in an annotated page from "The House of Broken Angels." (Click on the yellow highlights to see the annotations.)

Page 105 from "The House of Broken Angels"

Big Angel patted the bed. "Sit."

Apparently the ethnic civil war had passed like one of the tardy little rain clouds speeding east to collapse against the Cuyamaca Mountains.

"Carnal!" Big Angel said, eyes suddenly as bright as little black campfires. "Remember how my father peeled oranges?"

Little Angel nodded. "I remember our father, yeah."

Big Angel took the hint. "Our father. Put chile powder on oranges."

"And salt." "Tajín!"

They found this funny for some reason.

"He peeled oranges in one long strip," Big Angel shouted. "He made snakes out of the peel. Every time."

They laughed some more. It felt good to laugh. Mindless. Safe.

"He told me they were tapeworms," Little Angel said.

"Did I ever tell you about — " Big Angel blurted, and he was off on a binge of storytelling. Jokes and sorrows. Strange tales of their ancestors. Questions about Seattle. When he began a detailed tour of the many medicine bottles on his table, and doses and times of administering them, Little Angel gave up standing there awkwardly and climbed into bed beside his brother.

good talk
a day without pain

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.