Book Review: Youth on the Santa Fe Trail

 

Kattell.Youth On The Santa Fe Trail cover
Youth on the Santa Fe Trail
by Camilla Kattell
Light Horse Publishing, November 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0996675406

We tend to forget just how young many of the travelers on the Santa Fe Trail were. I suppose this is because we associate the Trail with merchant caravans more than we do with family settler groups.

In Youth On The Santa Fe Trail, Camilla Kattell reminds us that some of the most famous voices from that famous road were not yet twenty when they travelled it. In addition to Christopher “Kit” Carson, these young people included the soon-to-be mountain man Richens Lacey Wootton, future authors Francis Parkman, Jr. and Hector Lewis Garrard, diarist Susan Shelby Magoffin, and—youngest of them all at age seven—Marian Sloan Russell.

One of the things I especially appreciate about this book is that Kattell includes information about travelers I was unfamiliar with, including James Ross Larkin, an early health seeker on the Trail, sportsman William B. Napton, and New Mexico native José Librado Gurulé.

But Youth on the Santa Fe Trail does more than provide a concise biography of these travelers. It also provides context for their particular story and, in doing so, helps us to understand their world. For example, Kattell’s portrayal of Susan Shelby Magoffin helped me to see this young woman in a way I hadn’t before.

When I read the Magoffin diary a number of years ago, I was frustrated by what I saw as her very narrow view of the world. Youth on the Santa Fe Trail reminded me that Magoffin’s strict, rather puritanical, upbringing would naturally make her look askance at women smoking cigarettes and church hymns set to apparent dance tunes. What I saw as a narrow mindedness can also be viewed as a difference in cultures which Magoffin was doing her best to assimilate. Kattell expanded my view of this young woman’s perspective.

While Youth On The Santa Fe Trail is about the youth who traversed the Santa Fe Trail, it is certainly not only for young readers. It will give you a new appreciation for the Trail’s travelers, the impact they had on both their destination, and the way their experiences on the trail shaped that impact. I recommend it for anyone interested in the history of the Trail and of New Mexico.

 

Book Review: New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage

Dunmire.New Mexicos Livestock Heritage.cover
by William W. Dunmire
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2013
ISBN: 9780826331656

Have you ever been browsing in a bookstore and come across a book that you didn’t know you needed until you saw the title? That was how I discovered William W. Dunmire’s New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage. I suspected it could provide me with information that would add new dimension to my fiction. I have not been disappointed.

The subtitle of this book is “four centuries of animals, land, and people,” but the land and people are seen through the lens of the animals, not the other way around. The animals covered include the ganado mayor — the horses, donkeys, mules, cattle, and oxen — and also the minor livestock such as pigs, chickens, and sheep.

Dunmire discusses the types of animals that came in with the Spanish and also their impact on the cultures already in what the Spanish named nuevo mexico. Although the indigenous peoples were not necessarily interested in getting along with the Spanish, they seem to have immediately seen the value in acquiring the animals, especially their sheep and horses.

Dunmire does a great job of describing the impact of the imported livestock on the region from the 1500s into the 20th century, including their affect on the landscape. New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage is a well-written book that will be of interest to historians as well as the more casual reader who wants to know more about the mingling of cultures in New Mexico.

Book Review: Doña Tules

Dona Tules Bio cover
by Mary J. Straw Cook
UNM Press, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0826343130

In early August I posted a review of a fictional account of the life of Doña Tules Barceló. In it, I said it was the only fictional or non-fictional treatment that had been published about her life. I was wrong.

The week after that post went live, I attended Santa Fe’s Spanish Market. There I found a copy of Doña Tules, Santa Fe’s Courtesan and Gambler.  It was quite a find.

Admittedly, there isn’t a lot of information available about Tules Barceló’s life. However, in this book Mary J. Straw Cook has gathered what is known and fleshed it out with information about Barceló’s family members, both blood and adopted, and her contemporaries. While I don’t agree with all of Cook’s conclusions about Tules—the evidence for prostitution seems weak—the book does provide insight into her life, as well as into the era in which she lived, how it may have influenced her, and how she definitely influenced it.

This is a treasure of a book that reads like a novel. If you want to know more about this fascinating woman, her contemporaries, and her times, I recommend Doña Tules, Santa Fe’s Courtesan and Gambler.

Book Review: In The Shadow of Vargas

 

In the Shadow of Vargas cover
by E. Paul Bergeron
Clark River Publisher, 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0996701303

Technically, In The Shadow of Vargas, is more frontier fiction than western. That is, it’s not set in the American west after the U.S. took over the area that is now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. In fact, the story takes place just before the point at which U.S. citizens were even welcome into what was then Mexico.

Even so, I would classify this book as a western because it fits the criteria in every other way: a protagonist on his own, fighting the bad guys and the elements; a woman at risk who manages to survive until her man rescues her; a story set on the North American continent west of the Mississippi before 1900.

Those are my criteria for a western and sometimes a reader just needs to put up her feet up and read a good one. As far as I’m concerned, westerns are always better if they’re set in New Mexico. So when I learned about E. Paul Bergeron’s In The Shadow of Vargas,  I was eager to read it.

It didn’t disappoint. The larger-than-life fur trapper protagonist William MacLeod has a strong sense of justice and knows a good woman when he sees her. His impulse to aid the helpless gets him in trouble and then saves him in the end. And the woman he falls in love with is a strong character in her own right.

There’s a nice twist at the end of this novel which left me surprised.  The hero doesn’t—well, I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say that Bergeron does a good job of ending this novel while making you wonder what’s going to happen in the sequel, The Search for Diego.

If you’re looking for a traditional western set in New Mexico before the American invasion, I recommend In The Shadow of Vargas.

 

Sabino’s Map: Book Review

Sabinos Map cover
Sabino’s Map, Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza
by Don J. Usner
Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, 1995
ISBN 0-89013-289-5

Sabino’s Map is, I suspect, something of a rarity. It combines interviews with aging locals with an anthropologist’s research skills and fine eye for detail. That’s a difficult balance to achieve, but Don J. Usner does an excellent job arriving at and maintaining the necessary equilibrium.

This book is clearly the result of a labor of love, but it is also a very useful book for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the northern New Mexico village of Chimayo, its people, and its landscape.

Usner, who is related by birth to a good number of the people interviewed for this book, provides an extensive history of Chimayo which begins long prior to the first Spanish settlements.

The book is titled Sabino’s Map because in the 1950s a man named Sabino Trujillo hand-drew a detailed map of Chimayó’s Plaza del Cerro as it existed during his boyhood in the early 20th century. Sabino’s map identified each house on the plaza, who owned it at the time, the location of the acequias, where horses were pastured, where trees were located (or not), and a host of other detail. This detail forms the basis for and triggered the oral histories that provide much of the detail in the book.

This much detail, along with extensive interviews with people with plenty of stories to tell, could easily overwhelm a community narrative, but Usner does an excellent job of sifting through a wealth of knowledge and story to give us the nuggets that help the reader see what it might have been like to live in the Plaza del Cerro or its surrounding homes and farms in the late 1800’s and early 20th century.

Sabino’s Map is a beautifully researched and written produced book.

The Wind Leaves No Shadow: Book Review

The Wind Leaves No Shadow cover
by Ruth Laughlin
Caxton Printers, 1951
ISBN-13: 978-0870040832

Doña Tules Barceló was one of New Mexico’s most colorful 19th century characters, and The Wind Leaves No Shadow is, as far as I know, the only fictional or non-fictional treatment of her life.

From humble origins, which Ruth Laughlin imagines effectively, Doña Tules became owner of a Santa Fe gambling establishment where political opponents could meet to arrange accommodations that worked for everyone involved. She also acted as a kind of informal bank, lending money to key actors at critical junctures in New Mexico’s history. Because her gambling house gave her access to information not available everywhere, she was a valuable resource for both the Mexican and the American officials. She is said to have provided information in late 1846 to Governor Bent’s administration about the incipient rebellion against the U.S. occupation, the one that would result in his death a couple months later.

Not much is known about Doña Tules’ life, and Laughlin uses this fact to her advantage, weaving a story that places her in Santa Fe by the mid-1820’s and keeps her there until her death in 1852. The result is a story that not only imagines Doña Tules’ life but also provides the opportunity for an inside look at events (the 1837 Tax Revolt, the 1846 U.S. invasion, the 1847 death of Charles Bent) and people (the fur trappers, the ricos, the Santa Fe merchants, the priests) in Santa Fe during this period.

The Wind Leaves No Shadow was originally published in 1951 and reflects the historical information available to the author at the time as well as the prejudices that period. Although I didn’t always agree with Laughlin’s interpretation of historical events, she does a really great job of incorporating them into an effective story line. I was also uncomfortable with her insistence on Doña Tules’ white skin, red hair, and green eyes. In Laughlin’s interpretation, her coloring sounds more Irish than Spanish. In spite of these caveats, I believe this is still a useful book. If you’d like to get some idea of the life and trials of New Mexico’s famous lady gambler might have been like, or you’d like a fictional interpretation of New Mexico’s history in the 1820-1850 time frame, I recommend this book.

The Lights of Cimarron: Book Review

The Lights of Cimarron cover
Five Star Publishing, April 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1432851187

It’s always a treat to discover that a book I’m reading and enjoying is part of a series, so I was delighted to discover that the characters in Jim Jones’ The Lights of Cimarron are featured in other books as well.

Set in Cimarron, New Mexico in the 1870s, The Lights of Cimarron features Tommy Stallings, a very young sheriff who has the makings of a great man. He’s fallible, a little insecure, and he has a great mentor who’s a legend among sheriffs and a wife who doesn’t take him too seriously.

Tommy has challenges, though. For one thing, Colfax County officials want him to relocate to the new county seat in Springer, away from Cimarron where his wife is a teacher. So there are marital issues.

More ominously, there’s a gang of rustlers at work in the County and they’re doing more than stealing stock. They’re killing people, women and children as well as men, and leaving mutilated bodies in their wake.

But Tommy’s been charged with taking a bribe, a charge a local mayor seems more concerned with than murder. The accusation is keeping Tommy from finding and dealing with the rustlers. In fact, the mayor seems to be using it to block the rusting investigation. Can Tommy clear his name and get the rustlers too?

In my opinion, the test of a good series is whether the books in that series can stand alone as separate stories. This one does. It’s a pleasure to read and left me wanting to know more about the characters and what will become of them in the future. I’m looking forward to locating and reading the Jared Delaney series, of which The Lights of Cimarron is a spin-off.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted Western with interesting characters and which is part of a series, I definitely recommend The Lights of Cimarron!