David Dary: The Santa Fe Trail – Its History, Legends and Lore

The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore - David DaryThe Great Western Highway

Francisco Coronado. Juan de Oñate. William Becknell. Kit Carson. Jedediah Smith. Bent’s Old Fort. Fort Union. Fort Larned. Fort Dodge. Raton Pass. Glorieta Pass.

Names resounding with history, lore, enterprise, bravery and honor; conjuring up images of treks and trading posts, stagecoaches and scouts, gunfights and gold seekers, cowboys and cavallery regiments, blizzards and buffalo herds, Indians armed to their teeth, army forts, dust, mud, heat, and just about every other cliché in the book of Western storytelling. And, of course, the name that connects them one and all: that of the Santa Fe Trail, the 900 mile-long famous trade route linking Missouri and Kansas with the West until the advent of the railroad in 1880.

Already used by Indian traders long before the white man’s arrival, the trail was traveled by 16th century Spanish conquistadors Coronado and Oñate during their northward advance from Mexico, searching in vain for the famed golden cities of Cíbola. But regular trade relationships with the lands further to the east didn’t develop until 200 years later, when the French began to send commercial travelers towards what was then known as “New Spain.” This took a great deal of courage on the part of the envoys, not only because of the perils of a voyage into largely uncharted territory but also because the Spanish – seeing a threat to their territorial claims and their fiercely maintained trade monopoly in their territory’s northern provinces – often imprisoned French and American parties caught south of the Arkansas River, since 1819 the boundary between the United States and New Spain and, as of 1821, the newly-independent Mexico. But Santa Fe merchants welcomed and secretly promoted trade with the U.S., which they saw as a way to get out of the Spanish government’s stranglehold on the economy; and after 1821, the new Mexican government actively promoted trade with the U.S. American suppliers of whiskey, food, medicine, textiles and hardware soon gained profits up to 500 percent in the newly-opened market. After the Unites States’ substantial territorial gains resulting from the 1846 – 48 Mexican War, which also included New Mexico, the U.S. Army built a number of forts along the trail to secure it against increasingly fierce Native American raids, which however only stopped with the forced migration of the Indian nations to government-assigned reservations in the 1870s, shortly before the trail’s history itself came to an end with the arrival of a railroad locomotive in Santa Fe in early 1880. In 1987 – a little more than a century later – Congress designated the Santa Fe Trail a national historic trail.

Over the course of its history, the Santa Fe Trail saw some of the most prominent faces of the old West; from William Becknell, whose 1821 trip made the city of Franklin, MO, its first major eastern terminus, to Kit Carson, barely sixteen years old when he started working as a wagon train teamster in 1826, and Jedidiah Smith, who reportedly killed no less than thirteen Comanches before succumbing to their lances near Cimarron Spring in southwestern Kansas in 1831. Events such as the 1862 battle at Glorieta Pass, where Union troops crushed Confederate hopes of taking over New Mexico as a major Civil War prize, and the 1864 Kiowa raid of Fort Larned’s entire herd of 172 horses, further fueled the danger-shrouded, mythical status of the trail, its travelers, and the events surrounding both.

David Dary’s fascinating “Santa Fe Trail” condenses the trail’s history into a little over 300 pages, leaving ample room, however, for the dramatic stories, achievements and failures on which the fame of the “great western highway” is built. Despite its richness in detail, Dary’s prose is engaging and easily holds the reader’s attention (not surprising, given the subject matter). While it certainly helps to have at least a minimal understanding of the described events’ general historic context, the author’s narration makes up for any bits and pieces that may have slipped the reader’s recollection and also adds numerous lesser-known pieces of information, without neglecting to establish the relevant larger historic framework, such as the development of money trade in North America and the Lewis and Clark expedition, and their respective impact on the development of a trade route into Santa Fe. To a substantial extent, the book draws on primary sources: travel accounts and journals, trade invoices, contracts, newspaper articles, government documents, and more; many of them from Dary’s own library – the number of illustrations alone bearing the note “Author’s Collection” will be hard-pressed to find their equals elsewhere. (No small wonder: Dary reveals in the introduction that his interest in the trail’s history goes all the way back to his childhood.) While a few larger maps might have been desirable – those that are provided are somewhat difficult to read – this is no serious shortcoming; the author’s considerable descriptive gifts largely make up for the lack of easily decipherable cartographic devices, and the photographs, drawings, sketches, and paintings supplied throughout the book provide ample food for the reader’s imagination in fleshing out the stories’ narrative core and visualizing their protagonists. Although not reveling in the often bloody details of the trail’s history, Dary pulls no punches, neither in his own summary of the events nor in the selected quotes. For example, he concludes the history of the whites’ interactions with Indian tribes along the trail with an excerpt from Charles E. Campbell’s “Down among the Red Men” (1928), beginning with the unequivocal statement that “[t]he origin of nearly every war with Indians can be traced to some offense on the part of the white man.”

The book ends with a detailed glossary, annotations by chapter, as well as a fourteen-page bibliography: for the serious enthusiast, these alone should make its acquisition a virtual no-brainer. But even a first-time visitor to Santa Fe or any of the cities along the famous trail – heck, even an armchair traveler – will find plenty to marvel, agonize over and enjoy here.

Tom Bahti / Mark Bahti / Bruce Hucko: Southwestern Indian Arts and Crafts

Southwestern Indian Arts & Crafts - Tom Bahti, Mark BahtiThe wealth of Indian arts and crafts, marvelously presented

Did you know that the squash blossom necklace, probably the most recognizable of all Navajo jewelry designs, was an innovation only introduced during the 1870s? That most of the pottery produced in Isleta Pueblo is made by only two families? That the famous Zuñi cluster jewelry didn’t begin to emerge until the 1920s, when turquoise became more readily available for jewelry making? That symbols included in Native American art were often commissioned by traders, who would then concoct a “meaning” for those symbols to please their non-Western buyers? That jewelry was pawned on the Navajo Reservation as late as 1976? That permanent sandpainting art – in contrast to those paintings actually created during a Navajo healing ceremony – didn’t emerge until the 1950s and often includes alterations from the paintings’ religious meanings to protect the maker from illness? That basket weavers sometimes travel as far as 50 or 100 miles to gather specific plants, but that an hour’s work generally earns them no more than a dollar or two in wages? That American coins were barred from being used in silversmithing in the 1890s, but Mexican silver pesos continued to be used for another 40 years, to only then be replaced by sterling silver; that however the Indians never mined the silver used in their jewelry themselves? That the Hopi have well over 200 different katsinas (kachinas), all of which have distinctive meanings? That Native American artists now use materials from as far away as the Kalahari and Siberia in jewelry making? That even today, a tribe’s revenue from its crafts averages no more than 1 – 20% of its total income?

Authored by anthropologist-arts traders Tom and Mark Bahti, with color photographs by Bruce Hucko, on its just over 60 pages “Southwestern Indian Arts and Crafts” provides a comprehensive introduction to every aspect of Native American arts and crafts, from basket weaving and bead making to fetishes, Hopi katsinas, Navajo rugs and sandpaintings, paintings, pottery, silverwork and turquoise jewelry. Along the way, the authors provide not only background information on the origin of each discipline and the materials used, as well as the major methods of manufacture and important recent developments, but they also destroy a few myths, such as the one according to which every symbol used in Indian arts and crafts invariably has a set meaning, or that the squash blossom necklace has been a part of Navajo jewelry since time immemorial. The Bahtis consider the relationship between aesthetics and economics, the importance of the individual in Indian art (such as innovations introduced by certain trendsetting artists) and newly evolving trends, but they also present traditional methods and designs familiar to any visitor to the Southwest, such as Hopi overlay silversmithing, stamped and sandcast Navajo silverwork, concha belts, Zuñi jewelry made from a variety of techniques (including mosaic, inlay, cluster, needlepoint and petitpoint), doubleanded Navajo jocla and other beaded necklaces, the major traditional Navajo rug patterns and the meaning of the symmetry-breaking “spirit line,” eagle, owl and clown Hopi katsinas, clay storyteller figurines, as well as baskets and pottery in all manner of shapes and styles. A map in the centerfold identifies the major Indian tribes represented and some of the better-known designs associated with them; and the text closes with a few recommendations on buying Indian crafts and their care.

The book’s paperback edition looks deceptively like the cheap, flashy pseudo-“guides” on Southwestern culture all too often found near the cashiers of the region’s supermarkets and souvenir stores – but don’t be put off by that.While this is a comparatively slim volume and, according to its introduction, primarily addressed to the “casual” visitor, it’s an excellent starting point for any exploration of the world of Native American arts and crafts, a great inexpensive supplement to any purchase, and simply a marvelous souvenir, not only for the occasional visitor to the Southwest.

Native American jewelry (photo mine)





Rina Swentzell / Luci Tapahonso / Tony Chavarria (eds.): Here, Now, and Always – Voices of the First Peoples of the Southwest

“We are the people.”

“I am here.
I am here, now.
I have been here, always.”
Edmund J. Ladd (Zuñi).

In 1989, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, NM, began to put together a project designed to present Native American culture, traditions, and contemporary life from an Indian point of view: not looking in from the outside but looking out from the inside, not analyzing in the way of anthropologists but giving its Indian contributors themselves a place to raise their manifold voices. The process thus begun resulted in a fascinating permanent exhibition presenting all aspects of Native American life from its historic origins to modernity, from arts and crafts to farming and hunting, and from the sacred to the secular (if that distinction applies at all, for there is a profoundly spiritual element to every single act performed over the course of the day). Endowed with a multitude of exhibits – many of them of priceless value – and using traditional displays as well as a multimedia approach combining various audiovisual tools, from its inception the exhibition rested on one inimitable centerpiece: the multi-timbred choir of the First People’s very own voices.

Bearing the same title as the exhibition and illustrated by numerous photos, “Here, Now, and Always” provides an additional forum for these voices and sends them out into the world at large. “Listen carefully. Let the stories carry you to the center created by each Native community. Here, at the intersection of sky and earth, you will find the Southwest’s people,” the museum’s former archeology curator, Sarah Schlanger, is quoted at the end of the introductory text to the book’s first part, “Ancestors.” And thus, the book’s Diné (Navajo), Hopi, Zuñi, Apache, Tohono O’odham (Pima) and manifold Pueblo contributors become messengers of their respective peoples; talking about Earth Mother, Sun Father, Changing Woman, Spider Woman and Spider Man, Salt Woman, the Great Spirit, the formation of the first clans and their wanderings, the sacred places marking their world and the meaning of home and community, the interrelation of the elements and man’s interaction with them, the significance of clay, salt, corn, and tobacco, of minerals and precious stones, and of farming and hunting, the cycles of life, time, and the seasons, the importance of language, oral tradition, and sacred ceremonies in cultural preservation, and obstacles overcome and new challenges arising.

“Each mountain carries precious knowledge. Each is symbolized by certain birds, insects, trees, plants, songs, and prayers. Try to remember this when you think you might want to bulldoze these mountains. Let the sacred remain,” warns Gloria Emerson (Diné) in the chapter entitled “Elements.” Anthony Dorame (Tesuque Pueblo) explains about cycles that they are “circles that travel in straight lines.” In the chapter on agriculture he recounts how his people revived their already-forgotten life as farmers, and wonders, “Today, we again hear the musical thump of a watermelon being split open in the field. Will we forget again what we now remember?” and later on, he adds that “[w]hen the branch is broken, the twig cannot survive. Without our language and without our ways, you cannot survive as a people.” Similarly, recalling the young Zuñis shipped off to Pennsylvania in the 1800s, all of whom died from loneliness after having been cut off from their cultural roots, Edmund J. Ladd (Zuñi) – whose words also provided the project’s title – reflects that these days, it is his people’s language that is dying from loneliness. In the chapter entitled “Arts,” Michael Lacapa (Apache/Hopi/Tewa) adds that the word “art” does not exist in his language at all, and muses, “We make pieces of life to see, touch, and feel. Shall we call it ‘art’? I hope not. It may lose its soul. It is life. It is people.” And in talking about a mid-20th century professor’s prediction that traditional Indian life would vanish within a matter of years due to the spread of a cash economy, federal relocation policies, and WWII veterans’ reluctance to return to their prewar lifestyle, Dave Warren (Santa Clara Pueblo) points out that like the footprints and handholds left behind by their ancestors in the southwestern canyons, cliffs, and plateaus, “tradition is deeply etched into our very being. … [W]e are of these spaces, places, and times. We leave our footprints for another generation; we leave our handholds to steady their journey.”

Bringing together all these and many other voices, “Here, Now, and Always” pays tribute to the rich heritage of the Southwest’s Native people, and builds a unique bridge to a way of life, traditions, and beliefs sidelined and on the brink of extinction practically from the moment the first white man set down his conqueror’s foot in the region, although these very traditions had survived in (largely) peaceful coexistence for centuries before. A slim volume of less than 100 pages, the book is nevertheless powerful testimony to the First People’s resilience and ability to adapt to altered circumstances while maintaining the core of their cultural values. As such, it is highly recommended reading – and hopefully, also an incentive to one day go and see the exhibition from which it originates.

“Together we traveled,
in search of the center place.
In numbers we grew.
The center place had not been found.
The gods divided the people.
Some traveled north,
to the land of winter.
Some traveled south,
to the land of summer.
We are the people.”
Edmund J. Ladd (Zuñi).



John Steinbeck: Novels 1942 – 1952 (Library of America)

Novels 1942-52: The Moon is Down/Cannery Row/The Pearl/East of Eden (Library of America #132) - John Steinbeck, Robert DeMottA Nobel Laureate’s Eden and Our Many Faults and Failures.

Whenever “the great American novel” comes up in conversation, the names most frequently bandied about are Fitzgerald (“The Great Gatsby”), Faulkner (“The Sound and the Fury”), Hemingway (“The Old Man and the Sea”) – and John Steinbeck, chronicler of rural California and the ordinary man’s plight, like Faulkner and Hemingway winner of both the Literature Nobel Prize (1962) and the Pulitzer (1940, for “The Grapes of Wrath”), in addition to multiple other distinctions.

Little in Steinbeck’s upbringing hinted at his future rise to fame. Born 1902, a modest Salinas, California, flour-mill-manager-turned-county-treasurer’s son, he worked as a farm-hand during high school and studied English and biology at Stanford, but left 1925 without graduating to pursue journalism and writing in New York; only to have to return home a year later. Surviving on a number of odd jobs, he continued to write. His first novel, 1929’s “A Cup of Gold,” however, failed to return his publisher’s $250 advance, and his subsequent collection of interrelated stories (“The Pastures of Heaven,” 1932) and novel (“To a God Unknown,” 1933) likewise remained largely unknown. Steinbeck’s fate changed with 1935’s humorous “Tortilla Flat,” chronicling life in a Chicano community (and an allegory on Steinbeck’s own first literary influence, the Arthurian legend, to which he returned much later in an unfinished attempt to modernize Mallory’s “Morte D’Arthur”). Both “Tortilla Flat” and the subsequent “In Dubious Battle” (1936) – Steinbeck’s first exploration of the California’s migratory workers’ fate – won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal; and the sale of “Tortilla Flat”‘s movie rights earned him his first truly big check. Steinbeck’s reputation grew further with the interrelated coming-of-age stories of “The Red Pony” (1937), and his next two novels, 1937’s poignant “Of Mice and Men” and, particularly, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939), the story of angry “harvest gypsy” Tom Joad and his family. Both works are still among America’s 35 books most frequently banned from school curricula: keen testimony to the nerves they continue to touch.

Steinbeck’s major works are collected in four volumes of the Library of America series, the first covering his 1932 – 1937 writings, the second “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck’s extensive background research (“Harvest Gypsies,” 1936), the short story collection “The Long Valley” (1938) and his contribution to “The Sea of Cortez,” a 1941 publication about his 1940 marine exploration with close friend Ed Ricketts; and the final volume his last novels, written between 1947 and 1961, as well as the 1950 play-novelette “Burning Bright” and the travel narrative “Travels with Charley in Search of America” (1962). The present – third – volume contains his three major works from the 1940s, in addition to the awe-inspiring “East of Eden” (1952).

“The Moon Is Down” (1942) reflects Steinbeck’s impressions upon hearing the testimony of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Originally conceived as a play set in the U.S. but revised as a novel set in an unnamed Scandinavian country, it describes the struggle of a group of underground fighters in an occupied society. Widely read in occupied Europe, in 1946 it won Norway’s King Haakon Liberty Cross.

“Cannery Row” (written 1944, published a year later) was a response to a group of soldiers’ request to Steinbeck to write “something funny that isn’t about war.” It is set in Monterey, California and revolves around Doc Burton, a literary incarnation of the author’s friend Ed Ricketts, first introduced as a supporting character in “In Dubious Battle” and now taking center stage as a man whose mind has “no horizon,” and his sympathy “no warp” and thus, becoming the center of a community of truly memorable, endearing characters. (The novel’s dedication reads: “For Ed Ricketts who knows why or should.”) – Steinbeck returned to Doc and his Monterey community in 1954’s “Sweet Thursday.”

“The Pearl,” the folklore-based story of a boy whose life is altered (not for the better) by the discovery of a precious pearl, began as a screenplay for a film directed by Mexican Emilio Fernandez. The novel’s publication was postponed to coincide with the movie’s early 1948 release; by this time the story had, however, already appeared in a magazine.

“East of Eden,” by far the longest work contained herein, was, according to Steinbeck himself, the major novel of his life: “I think there is only one book to a man,” he noted in a letter to his publisher. Of epic scope and breathtaking craftsmanship and complex characters, it is part chronicle of California’s early settlement history, part family saga and part tale of two unequal brothers’ rivalry, modeled on the bible’s Cain and Abel. Intending the book primarily for his sons, Steinbeck commented that it was like a box containing “[n]early everything I have … [p]ain and excitement … evil thoughts and good thoughts – the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.” The writing process was accompanied by a series of letters to Steinbeck’s publisher, published 1969 as “Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.”

In his remaining 16 years, Steinbeck published only three more works of fiction – besides “Sweet Thursday,” the satirical “Short Reign of Pippin IV” (1957) and 1961’s swan-song on materialism, “The Winter of Our Discontent.” (The uncompleted “Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights” was published posthumously.) His most popular later work is the journal of his trans-American road trip with his poodle Charley (“Travels With Charley,” 1962). But he remained a critical voice, released several collections of journalism and when he died, left a legacy also including a treasury of letters and two highly-acclaimed screenplays, for an adaptation of his own “Red Pony” and for 1952’s “Viva Zapata!” (starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn), in addition to screen versions of his novels involving Hollywood luminaries from John Ford and Elia Kazan to Henry Fonda, James Dean, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum and, more recently, Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.


Favorite Quotes:
East of Eden

“After a while you’ll think no thought the others do not think. You’ll know no word the others can’t say. And you’ll do things because the others do them. You’ll feel the danger in any difference whatever – a danger to the crowd of like-thinking, like-acting men … Once in a while there is a man who won’t do what is demanded of him, and do you know what happens? The whole machine devotes itself coldly to the destruction of his difference. They’ll beat your spirit and your nerves, your body and your mind, with iron rods until the dangerous difference goes out of you. And if you can’t finally give in, they’ll vomit you up and leave you stinking outside – neither part of themselves, nor yet free …They only do it to protect themselves. A thing so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as an army can’t allow a question to weaken it.”

Cannery Row

“It has always seemed strange to me …The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (1962)

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”


Wallace Stegner: Remembering Laughter

 : Early hallmarks of Stegner’s greatest works.

On the front porch of their Iowa farm house, Margaret Stuart and her sister Elspeth watch the arrival of the funeral guests of Margaret’s husband Alec. Having aged rapidly and before their time, they seem to be twins; although in fact there is a seven year age difference between them. Living with them, grieving alone in his room is Malcolm, their son.

This is the introduction to Wallace Stegner’s first short novella, written in 1936 as his submission to a prize contest held by Little, Brown & Co. (Not surprisingly, Stegner won.) We next see the sisters 18 years earlier, at Elspeth’s arrival in Iowa. Margaret and Alec are a handsome and, it seems, happy couple; although there are early warning signs – Margaret complains about her husband’s taste for alcohol, he about her moralizing. Soon after the arrival of Margaret’s younger sister, pretty and ostensibly much more naïve and innocent than Margaret, the relationship between the three begins to change; subtly but inevitably, until Margaret eventually stumbles into the discovery of her husband’s affair with Elspeth. That discovery, almost more than the affair itself it appears, destroys the bonds between the sisters, between husband and wife, and between Elspeth and Alec. Yet, they go on living together, and together they raise Malcolm, the child born out of Elspeth’s and Alec’s relationship; held out as their nephew to minimize public shame. And while they keep themselves occupied with the farm business and with entertaining their neighbors, and even garner considerable outward success, inside they slowly dry up: Unlike in our end-of-the-20th/beginning of the 21st century culture, where “talk it over” and “bring it out” are the buzzwords of a society believing (perhaps rightly so) that for better or worse, problems not openly addressed will forever remain unsolved, an all-out display of the emotional turmoil besetting Stegner’s heroes simply is not an option – in “Remembering Laughter” as little as in his later, Pulitzer prize winning “Angle of Repose.”

Stegner’s wife Mary revealed in a short afterword to Penguin’s 1996 republication of “Remembering Laughter” that the story was based on two old aunts of hers, one a widow and one a spinster, who together had raised a son who could have been the child of either of them; Mrs. Stegner wasn’t sure whose. Only 150 pages long, this first novella already has all the hallmarks of Stegner’s later works – compelling characters and a keenly accurate portrayal of their social context, set in the vast, magnificent and often merciless environment of the Western prairies which Stegner loved so much. This novella is an excellent introduction to Wallace Stegner’s work (Stegner also has to be credited with contributing to the redefinition of this particular art form in 20th century American literature) and a great morality tale condensed to its essentials; not easy to swallow but highly recommended.


Favorite Quote:

“The perfect weather of Indian Summer lengthened and lingered, warm sunny days were followed by brisk nights with Halloween a presentiment in the air.”


John Nichols: A Fragile Beauty

John Nichols: A Fragile BeautyIn Harmony With the Earth

“An albatross around his neck” John Nichols called his 1974 novel The Milagro Beanfield War in an afterword to the book’s 1994 anniversary edition, because he felt that particularly after Milagro had, over multiple obstacles, been made into a 1988 movie directed by Robert Redford, it had eclipsed much of his other work; be it the two other novels in his New Mexico Trilogy (The Magic Journey, 1978, and The Nirvana Blues, 1981), his other novels, from 1965’s Sterile Cuckoo to A Ghost in the Music (1979), Conjugal Bliss (1994) and beyond, and his extensive nonfiction work, much of which, like his novels, deals with life and the love of the land in his beloved northern New Mexico.

A Fragile Beauty is part companion volume to the Milagro novel(s) and movie, part introduction to Nichols’s world, in which the movie’s release had created new interest. As such, it follows prior works such as If Mountains Die (1979, with photographs by the author’s friend William Davis), the memoir The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn (1982), Nichols’s joint piece with Edward Abbey (In Praise of Mountain Lions, 1984), as well as On the Mesa (1986). As in the 1982 memoir and in several other pieces (The Sky’s the Limit, 1990, and Keep It Simple, 1992), Nichols himself not only supplied the text but also the photography; chronicling his New Mexico neighbors’ extraordinary spirit and powers of subsistence, and the unique natural charms of the state which, not without reason, bears the name “The Land of Enchantment.”

In an introductory essay, extracts of which were originally published as an article in the May 1987 edition of American Film Magazine, the author talks about the years of his political formation, and his arrival and early experience in New Mexico, particularly his work as a reporter and editor with a now long-defunct newspaper called The New Mexico Review, and his support of the fight for a fair and responsible water distribution system, which eventually fed into Milagro; as well as about the novel’s tenuous transformation into multiple draft screenplays and, eventually, a movie. But mostly, A Fragile Beauty is a celebration of life on the mesa; of the humble and humbling majesty of its mountains, endless skies, seasons, storms, sun and snow, sagebrush, flowers, cottonwoods, pinons, forests, golden asters and aspens, rivulets, gullies, gorges, lakes, ponds, trout, lizards, dragonflies, coyotes, wolves, birds, horses, cattle, and sheep … and of Nichols’s friends and neighbors: Justin Locke, Julian Ledoux, the Martinezes, Charley Reynolds, Mike Kimmel, Doug Terry, Isabel Vigil and her daughter Evelyn, Pacomio Mondragon, and the folks of the Tres Rios Association. (No, I never met any of these people in person. But the way Nichols talks about them, he makes you feel like you know them just this much – and of course you have met them and many others, too, if you have read “Milagro.”)

“Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it connected to everything else in the universe,” Nichols quotes John Muir, and he adds, “I have always kept that in mind while writing about the land, people, heartaches of northern New Mexico. To extoll the fragile beauty of the Taos Valley in words, photographs, or in a film, is to sing the praises of, and to demand consideration for, the entire earth.” And Robert Redford writes in his foreword: “These mountains and their attendant valleys belong to the spirits of the dead and the cultures that have followed in their footsteps. They belong to the tourist only in passing and in pictures. … John Nichols understands this, himself much like the land he treasures and stays pledged to keep. … His may be a windmill fight. But it is a noble one, and I salute it.”

What could I, a mere tourist to the region, possibly have to add? Surely not much that these two, and particularly John Nichols, haven’t expressed with much greater skill in one way or another. But I think I can claim just about enough familiarity with northern New Mexico to say that I share their concern for its preservation; and upon each new visit, my innate response to the region’s extraordinary natural beauty is still very much that of my very first stay there as a teenager: to me, as to then-sixteen-year-old John Nichols, who first spent a summer there in 1957, this is still “dream territory;” “a piece of terrain wild and beautiful enough to be commensurate with [my] capacity for wonder,” as Nichols puts it, citing F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t need to take anything other than photographs back home with me. But every time I return, I hope that my favorite piece of the Land of Enchantment will still be there the way I remember it, and every time I see changes – not all of them for the better. So, yes, Mr. Nichols, your defense of the area does speak to me, too; and for the future inhabitants of Milagro Country, for the future Joe Mondragons, Seferino Pachecos and Mercedes Reals, as much as for the rest of us, I hope the region will be able to preserve its beauty and its community values over the onslaught of commerce.

Favorite Quote:

“We are touched by magic wands. For just a fraction of our day life is perfect, and we are absolutely happy and in harmony with the earth. The feeling passes much too quickly. But the memory – and the anticipation of other miracles – sustains us in the battle indefinitely.”



Tony Hillerman: Sacred Clowns

Sacred Clowns - Tony HillermanOne of the biggest highlights in an outstanding series.

Against his editor’s counsel, Tony Hillerman switched from nonfiction to fiction writing over 30 years ago, with a story ultimately entitled “The Blessing Way;” introducing an (at the time) new type of hero and a new setting to the realm of the mystery novel – a Navajo policeman named Joe Leaphorn and the world of the Diné, i.e. [Navajo] “people,” living on the rugged plains, deserts and mountain ridges of the southwestern Four Corners Country. From the first book on, Hillerman’s novels drew in equal parts on the author’s natural gift as a storyteller, his upbringing within and hence, intimate knowledge of the world he describes, and his training as a writer; all of these elements blending into fascinating storylines and vivid and accurate portrayals of the land and its people.

Based on the success of his Leaphorn series, Tony Hillerman then created a new hero and (initially: a second) series set in Dinetah (Navajo country): tribal policeman Jim Chee. But while Joe Leaphorn was married and methodical and seemed, over the course of the years, to have found a way to harmonize Navajo traditions and 20th century American life, the younger Chee, unmarried, initially trained to be a shaman and deeply traditional, yet at the same time drawn to women living in the white man’s world, was struggling to find that same sense of balance.

Whether or not Hillerman’s unequal heroes were always meant to meet, they eventually did so in “Skinwalkers” and have been solving crimes together ever since, and their disparate tempers and approaches to police work add another level of tension to the stories, in addition to the cultural differences between the Navajo and the world(s) surrounding them, and the tribal policemen’s perpetual clashes with the federal authorities. In more than one novel, Hillerman transcends the world of the Navajo, bringing in and contrasting to it the views and traditions of other tribes of the Southwest, not all of them historically on friendly terms with the Navajo (e.g. the Hopi in “The Dark Wind,” the Ute in “Hunting Badger” and the Zuni in “Dance Hall of the Dead”). In “Sacred Clowns,” Chee and Leaphorn (who has long since gained a reputation as the “Legendary Lieutenant”) must delve into the society of Tano Pueblo to solve the murder of a teacher at a Navajo school, which seems to be connected to a death in the pueblo. As they dig through layers and layers of secrets, they again face the skepticism of a society that has had its “issues” with the Diné in the past. Yet, they slowly unravel the mystery surrounding the Kachina dancers (“sacred clowns”) at the heart of the story and finally come to an, as always, surprising conclusion.

If you have never read a book by Hillerman and it’s important to you to get to know the main characters of a series as they develop over the course of time, you’ll have no choice but to go all the way back to “The Blessing Way” and read your way through to this particular book (which in a way makes sense, of course and, given the caliber of these stories and their author, should be a lot of fun, too). But like every good writer, Hillerman provides enough background for Leaphorn and Chee for even a first-time reader to be able to understand and appreciate his heroes and the things that drive them from the context of any of their stories – and I’ll almost guarantee that this won’t remain your only Hillerman book for a long time anyway: you’ll be hooked midway through the tale at the very latest and will want to know more about the Legendary Lieutenant, Sergeant Chee and their people as soon as possible and before long, will find yourself swallowing every other book about them, too. Oh, by the way … they kept working together, never mind that Joe Leaphorn retired from the police at some point later in the series. Yet, while I have no doubt that whatever books by Hillerman you pick up will all be good reads (there isn’t one weak book in the entire series), “Sacred Clowns” will forever remain one of my favorite stories about Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee.


Sherman Alexie: The Toughest Indian in the World

The Toughest Indian In The World - Sherman AlexieStories that make you think.

Sherman Alexie’s narratives in The Toughest Indian in the World combine the author’s matter-of-fact, understated style with his edgy humor, irony and passion. The result is a collection of short stories (with numerous subplots) which will always make you think, sometimes make you laugh, and sometimes make you get angry. Alexie’s heroes come from different tribes and all walks of life, but whether they themselves like it or not, they are all Indian – not: “Native American.” (“You ain’t Indian,” the Spokane father of a Spokane student thrown out of class over the question “What is an Indian?” tells his son’s mixed-race professor in One Good Man. “No. You might be a Native American but you sure as hell ain’t Indian.”) Not all of these stories are light fare – The Sin Eaters, which reflects on the darkest chapters of American Indian history, is strongly reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World. (Not recommended reading before you go to bed, at least if you have a vivid imagination.) But whether hilariously funny or dead-serious, you will not be able to put them down until you’ve read the very last page – and you will be sorry when you have.


Favorite Quote

“When you resort to violence to prove a point, you’ve just experienced a profound failure of imagination.”