The Lizard as Hero: Book Review

The almost-invisible lizard sunning himself on a rock or a log is a common occurrence  in New Mexico. I almost stepped on one in the garden this morning. However, I would never have thought to use a lizard as a metaphor for a detective and “fixer.” But Pamela Christie did, and the resulting books are a fascinating look at New Mexico in the 1780s.

Kings Lizard cover

In The King’s Lizard, Christie introduces us to the Old New Mexico version of the invisible person—the half-Ute, half-Spanish Fernando “Nando” Aguilar who lives in a kind of limbo between his Spanish and Native origins. This liminal status makes Nando easy to overlook. But it also gives him access to both the Native and Spanish worlds, an access which makes him a valuable tool for Governor Juan Bautista de Anza.

Governor Anza has been tasked with creating a lasting peace with the Comanche. But there are men in New Mexico who don’t want peace. Unsettled conditions give them access to human contraband. And contraband sales fund a more-than-comfortable lifestyle. Nando becomes part of these men’s merchandise and then, after he escapes their clutches, the key to destroying the slave network as well as providing the Governor with a path to peace.

Dead Lizards Dance cover

In Dead Lizard’s Dance, Nando once again saves the day, sorting out a plot that not only threatens the Governor, but also his own family’s security. Rumors of witchcraft go hand in hand with the struggle to control the caravan of goods to and from Mexico that is the colony’s lifeline.

This particular novel also highlights the status of women in the colony, and it isn’t a particularly pretty picture. But Nando protects the women he can, including those who’ve exacted revenge on a man who’s made a life’s work of abuse and betrayal.

Lizard’s Kill appears to be the end of the road for Nando’s work for Anza, because the Governor’s term of office has ended.

Lizards Kill cover

He’s on his way back to Mexico and retirement. But Anza has one more service he hopes to perform for New Mexico and only Nando Aguilar has the skills to achieve the impossible.

Christie brings a deep knowledge of a complex bygone world  to these three books, a knowledge that seems to expand with each story. Her writing and her observations about New Mexico life and politics in the 1780s grows more deft with each novel. If you’d like to know more about this period and are looking for a good mystery series to dive into I recommend these books.

Long live lizards!

P.S. All of these books are also available directly from Pamela Christie, who says she prefers direct contact with her readers. And she’ll also cut deals! You can contact her at christiepr@gmail.com.

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Over The Trail to Mexico: Book Review

 

Over The Santa Fe Trail to Mexico cover
Joy L. Poole, editor
ISBN: 9780806157511
University of Oklahoma press, 2017

Early in the summer 1825, yet another young man joined a wagon train headed over the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico.

This particular traveler’s name was Doctor Rowland Willard. Dr. Willard’s diary during his time on the Trail and afterwards in New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Durango has now been published with detailed notes and provides a fascinating look at life in Mexico in the second half of the 1820s.

As a medical doctor, Doctor Willard’s perspective was slightly different from other Americans on the Trail and in Mexico. However, in some ways it was very much the same — he was there to make money.

He spent less than six months in New Mexico and did not find there the financial success he was looking for. However, he did find it in Chihuahua. He returned to the States in 1828 with $7000 in cash.

Willard’s diary has actually been published before. Excerpts were included in the Western Travel Review in 1829 and two years later the entire diary was added as an appendix to The Personal Narrative of James Ohio Pattie. The physical diary disappeared into Willard family archives and didn’t resurface until  2005, when it began its journey to publication as Over The Santa Fe Trail To Mexico, the travel diaries and autobiography of Doctor Rowland Willard

This edition provides not only the diary but also Joy L. Poole’s extensive notes and Willard’s autobiography, published here for the first time. This book is worth its price for Poole’s notes alone, which provide the context for fully appreciating Willard’s experiences and observations.

If you’re a student of the Santa Fe trail or of New Mexico history in the late 1820s, Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico  will be a valuable addition to your library. If you’re simply looking for a good read about old New Mexico— or old Mexico— I would definitely recommend it.

West of Penance: Book Review

West of Penance cover
by Thomas D. Clagett
ISBN: 9781432831417
Five Star/Cengage, 2016

There were a lot of pieces to the conflict that engulfed New Mexico’s Colfax County in the 1870s–the conflict we know today as the Colfax County War. As far as I know, no one has ever provided a good fictional account of how some of those pieces fit together and just who did what to whom. Until now.

The hero of Thomas D. Clagett’s West of Penance doesn’t get to Colfax County until a little over one-third of the way into the book. But once he does, he’s in the middle of events that actually happened. Events that Clagett lines up nicely and for which he provides explanations that not only make sense, but make for a great story.

Although Father Graintaire and the woman who takes him in are fictional characters, everyone else in this section of the book actually existed. Based on my own Colfax County research, Clagett’s conceptions of them and their actions are right on target. The portraits of Clay Allison and Sheriff Chittenden, and the explanation of why Cruz Vega was in William Lowe’s cornfield the night he was lynched are especially well done. And Clagett’s portrait of Santa Fe Ring attorney Melvin W. Mills gave me new insight into Mills’ character. I wish I’d read West of Penance before I wrote his scenes in The Pain and The Sorrow!

Given how well Clagett handles the Colfax County material in this book, I think it’s safe to assume that the first part of West of Penance  is just as authentic. I certainly feel like I know more now about the French Foreign Legion than I did before I read this book.

So, if you’re interested in the French Foreign Legion at the battle of Camerone and the role they played in acquiring Mexico for France, or in New Mexico’s Colfax County war, I recommend that you read West of Penance!

 

Rosary Without Beads: Book Review

Rosary Without Beads cover
by Diana Holguín-Balogh
ISBN: 9781432844745
Five Star/Cengage, 2018

Rosary Without Beads has changed my mind about Billy the Kid.

I’d been told that, in addition to being an outlaw, Billy the Kid was also a lady’s man. That didn’t make him more attractive to me. A thug and a womanizer. Why would I find that appealing?

However, Diana Holguín-Balogh’s masterful fictional portrayal of Billy the Kid and a young woman who falls for him has me seeing Billy in a new light.

Rosary Without Beads presents a Billy who’s passionate about justice and fair play, and loyal to a fault—characteristics which end up placing him on the wrong side of the law. He also has a facility with English and Spanish that could sweet talk a rattlesnake out of its rattles.

Billy’s linguistic charm is a primary reason I like this book so much. Holguín-Balogh has a gift for writing broken English/Spanish so that it’s not only comprehensible, but has a music all its own. This is true not only of Billy’s verbal skills, but also of the other characters, especially the female protagonist, Ambrosia.

Ambrosia doesn’t have an easy life. She’s been promised to a man who would really rather have her sister. That’s bound to make a girl feel unattractive. So when Billy shows up and shows some interest, she’s pretty much swept off her feet. She doesn’t succumb to his charms easily, though. Holguín-Balogh does a great job of expressing this girl’s mixed emotions about Billy all the way through the novel.

I suppose I can safely tell you that the Kid dies at the end of this book. I suspect that’s a story most of us know. However, Rosary Without Beads presents a take on the usual explanations for the circumstances of Billy’s death, and what happens afterward, which may surprise you. But you’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out what that take is.

If you’re looking for a historical novel you can sink your teeth into and feel like you’ve learned something in the process, I recommend this book!

The Kid And Me: Book Review

Note: I’ve decided to add some book reviews to this site, featuring fiction set in, or nonfiction about, New Mexico before statehood. The first one up is The Kid and Me, a story of Billy the Kid.

the Kid and Me cover
The Kid and Me, by Frederick Turner, ISBN: 978-1496206893 Bison Books, 2018

In New Mexico, there’s really only one “Kid”— Billy the Kid of Lincoln County War fame. Frederick Turner’s novel The Kid and Me takes a new approach to Billy’s story by narrating it from the perspective of George Coe, one of the men who rode with the Kid.

It’s a rambling story, told many decades after the events, which occurred in the late 1870s. Coe is an old man now, and the memories he shares are marked by digressions, exaggerations, and telling insights into the character and possible motivations of the people involved in the Lincoln County War.

These insights and the colorful language Coe uses to tell his story are the two great strengths of The Kid and Me. It’s only weakness is actually not in the story itself—I would have liked a historical chronology of events at the end of the book, along with a discussion of how Coe’s memory might have failed him during his retelling of the Billy the Kid story.

This is a recently published book and a great read. It’s definitely worth adding to your library if you’re interested in New Mexico’s Lincoln County war. Or if you’d just like too read a first-person fictional narrative from a crotchety, opinionated old man’s point of view.

Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.com/Kid-Me-Novel-Frederick-Turner/dp/1496206894/