Luis Alberto Urrea said something revelatory toward the end of his appearance with Ana Castillo on Sunday at the Wisconsin Book Festival. The author of The Hummingbird's Daughter and 10 other books was discussing The Devil's Highway, his 2005 account of 26 men who tried to cross from Mexico into the U.S. but were abandoned in the desert by the human traffickers who were leading them into this country.
As part of his research for the book, Urrea had gone to Mexico to talk to officials there. He was asking one of the sources about possible solutions to the problem of people trying to cross into the U.S. Problem? His source responded. What problem? Urrea, surprised, explained what he meant. That's not a problem, the source told Urrea, it's a phenomenon -- a large-scale human migration that could not be solved as a problem, but only observed as some wondrous spectacle.
Boom. There it was. In an instant, the situation along the U.S. border with Mexico explained with crystalline clarity as something driven by socio-economic forces so enormous as to be tidal, perhaps bordering on the biblical. Not a problem. A phenomenon.
At their appearance on Sunday at the Overture Center, Urrea and Castillo were ideal complements to each other. The Devil's Highway earned Urrea a Pulitzer nomination for its unflinching investigation of both the specific case and the contexts in which he couches it. Castillo's latest novel, The Guardians, traverses similar terrain, focusing on a family split by the border. In her readings from The Guardians, Castillo invoked and evoked the perspectives of three of her characters with changes in her own voice that were subtle but effective at expressing the distinctive humanity of each.
As I look back at this weekend's Wisconsin Book Festival, Urrea's anecdote about recasting a problem as a phenomenon lingers as a rope that binds the programs I attended. What better word than phenomenon to describe the Dictionary of American Regional English or the ambition of its founding editor, the late Frederic G. Cassidy -- celebrated last Wednesday by his successor, Joan Houston Hall, and others on the 100th anniversary of his birth? Or the exhilarating performance by Nuyorican poets Roger Bonair-Agard and Willie Perdomo on Friday evening? Or The World Without Us, Alan Weisman's captivating feat of science writing?
What better word than phenomenon to describe all the authors and books and moments that add up to the Wisconsin Book Festival itself -- or the way its organizers and sponsors bring readers together with writers and booksellers and anyone else with a stake in books?
Maybe this word is better: phenomenal.