BOOK REVIEW: Captives and Cousins

 

Brooks.Captives and Cousins.cover
University of North Carolina press, 2002
ISBN: 0807853828

There are divergent explanations for the trade in captured Native Americans that occurred in New Mexico between the Spanish entrada and the late 1800’s: It was the result of justified retribution for Native American raids, deliberate expansion of a system of slavery, or any other number of reasons.

James F. Brooks’ Captives and Cousins moves beyond these explanations to explore the way the culture of capture and servitude throughout the Southwest borderlands affected all the communities involved, both for good and ill.

While Brooks does not condone the slave trade, he does point out that both Native and Spanish-speaking communities took part in it. More importantly, he proposes that the resulting mingling of cultures enabled a cultural flexibility that may not have otherwise occurred.

Because of its subject matter, Captives and Cousins isn’t an easy read. However, I believe it is an important one. The book’s value lies not only in its nuanced exploration of an aspect of New Mexico’s history most of us would rather not think about, but also its demonstration of a way to think about other uncomfortable aspects of our history.

We tend to want simple solutions to complex issues. Brooks demonstrates that life is complex, that what appears horrendous can sometimes be of benefit, and that there are no simple answers. If you’re interested in reading and thinking about a difficult topic explored by an author who’s not interested in descending into either outrage or cultural self-congratulation, I recommend Captives and Cousins.

BOOK REVIEW: Company of Cowards

 

Schaefer.Company of Cowards.cover
ISBN-13: 978-0826358639
University of New Mexico Press (July 11, 2017)

Jack Schaefer is probably best known for his novel, Shane. However, he wrote a number of other books, as well as a history of New Mexico for young people. One of these is Company of Cowards, a historical novel based on an event which may or may not have occurred.

The story’s premise is that eight Union officers who’ve been court-martialed for cowardice are not sent home in disgrace but are instead assigned to a separate military unit set up just for them, Company Q. Whether or not there really was such a unit is a riddle for the historians. Schaeffer’s take on the idea and his exploration of how such a group of men might become a cohesive fighting group and in the process learn to respect themselves again, makes for a fascinating story.

On this website, I only review books that are primarily set in New Mexico prior to statehood in 1912. Company of Cowards meets my criteria because, though Schaeffer’s Company Q is established in the East, the men in it end up at New Mexico’s Fort Union and  participate in the 1864 Battle of Adobe Walls. Schaefer’s version of that battle highlights the bravery of the fictional Company Q as well as the military skills of their non-fictional commander Christopher Carson.

Company of Cowards is a well-written book that explores how a man might fail and yet not be a failure. While Company Q serves as the primary focus of this exploration, the events at Adobe Walls also provide an opportunity to consider whether this battle—technically a defeat because Carson’s forces retreated— should actually be characterized in that way.

I recommend this book for several reasons. First, it is a fine exploration of the difficulty or breaking free of the labels others place on us. Second, it’s a wryly humorous look at the Civil War and the decision-making process in any military unit. Third, Schaefer’s loving  characterization of New Mexico and careful depiction of the battle of Adobe Walls will be appreciated by anyone who is interested in New Mexico and its history.

Company of Cowards  is definitely worth a read!

BOOK REVIEW: Glorieta

Bohnhoff.Glorieta cover
Thin Air Press, 2020
ISBN: 979-8604997840

Among the battles of the Civil War, the one at New Mexico’s Glorieta Pass doesn’t get much attention. In the broader scheme of the war, it was a minor conflict. But Glorieta was important for the Confederacy. Although they won the battle, they lost their supply train and were forced to return south, away from Colorado and its gold and silver fields.

Glorieta, Jennifer Bohnhoff’s fictional treatment of the battle, is the second in her trilogy about the Civil War in New Mexico. In Glorieta, we are re-introduced to rebel Jemmy Martin, a character in Valverde, the first book, and meet a new one, the Irish teenager Cian Lochlann from Colorado. Between the two of them, we see the conflict from both the Confederate and Union perspectives.

Bohnhoff also introduces us to some historical characters. One of these, Major John F. Chivington, I expected to dislike. I knew about his actions years later at Sand Creek. For that reason, I didn’t understand why anyone would follow the man anywhere for any reason whatsoever. Bohnhoff’s Glorieta helped me see Chivington’s charisma while she also acknowledges the negative aspects of his character.

The Rebels Along The Rio Grande series is written for Middle Graders. That being said, I found this second volume to be an enjoyable and informative read. I recommend Glorieta to anyone who’s interested in the Civil War in New Mexico, young and old alike.

Book Review: Valverde

Bohnhoff.Valverde cover
Thin Air Books, 2017
ISBN: 9781534715974

Valverde is a novel about the Civil War in New Mexico that begins in Texas. This location may seem odd to you unless you’re familiar with the relationship of Texas and New Mexico. You see, the Texas Republic tried to invade New Mexico twenty years before the Civil War, and it didn’t go well.

His father’s involvement in that earlier invasion plays a role in teenage Texan Jemmy’s decision to join the Confederate Texan forces. It also affects New Mexico teenager Raul’s attitude toward the invading forces.

Valverde follows each boy as he experiences the beginnings of the Civil War in New Mexico and as their paths cross at the battle of Valverde in February 1862.

The characters are well drawn, the situations are believable, and the battle scenes are handled nicely—there’s enough detail to make the reader feel the characters’ pain but not more than is strictly necessary.

This book is the first in the trilogy Rebels Along the Rio Grande, a series of Middle-Grade novels about the Civil War in New Mexico. The next in the series is Glorieta and I’m looking forward to reading it, too!

You don’t have to be a Middle-Grader to enjoy and learn a little something from this book. I recommend Valverde to young and old!

Book Review: Knight of the Tiger

Farmer.Knight of the Tiger.cover
Five Star Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781432837990

I don’t know much about Pancho Villa. At least, I didn’t until I read Knight of the Tiger. I knew Villa was one of a group of generals who competed for control of Mexico in the early 1900’s and that he led a raid into New Mexico in March 1916. I knew nothing about his background or his personality.

Now I know a good deal more than I did. But I didn’t pick up Knight of the Tiger in order to learn about Pancho Villa. I wanted to know what happened next to Henry Fountain, the protagonist of W. Michael Farmer’s Mariana’s Knight and Knight’s Odyssey.

This third volume of the Legends of the Desert didn’t disappoint me. I did follow Henry on his further adventures. But I also learned about Pancho Villa.

At its finest, that’s what historical fiction does. It tells us a good story and also teaches us something along the way. However, Knight of the Tiger does more than that. It also explores the concept of revenge—when it’s appropriate, when it’s counter-productive, and what exacting it can do to the human soul.

Knight of the Tiger did a great job of telling a great story, teaching me some history, and giving me something to think about. I recommend it!

 

Book Review: Knight’s Odyssey

Farmer.Knights Odyssey.cover
Five Star Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781432838003

Knight’s Odyssey is the second in W. Michael Farmer’s Legends of the Desert series and follows the now-fictional Henry Fountain into new terrain.

I say “now-fictional Henry Fountain” because, as those of you familiar with the name  know, the historical Henry Fountain disappeared in the deserts of New Mexico when he was eight years old. The first book in the Legends of the Desert series Mariana’s Knight,  focused on his disappearance and imagined a way in which he might have survived and revenged his father’s assassination.

This second book in the series imagines Henry’s life after that revenge, taking him into Mexico and through a series of adventures that sees him fall in love and experience even more reasons for vengeance. But revenge isn’t the only purpose in Henry’s life. The story ends in an unexpected way that made me eager to read the next book and find out what happened next.

Knight’s Odyssey is more than a action-filled western with strong characters and well-described landscape. It’s a well-balanced story that looks at both the motivations that drive us and what gives our lives meaning. I recommend it!

Book Review: Philmont, A History Of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country

Murphy.Philmont.cover
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1972
ISBN: 9780826302441

The summer staff at the Boy Scouts of America Philmont Scout Ranch outside Cimarron, New Mexico are often working their first “real” job. For Lawrence R Murphy in the 1960s, that job became the springboard to a history degree and a master’s thesis on the Baldy Mountain mining district, part of which lies inside the Scout Ranch boundaries. Murphy’s thesis and other writings became the foundation for Philmont, A History Of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country.

But Philmont is much more than a history of Baldy Mountain or Philmont Scout Ranch. It’s also a history of Colfax County, New Mexico.

And it’s a thorough one. The book begins with the region’s plants and animals, then goes on to discuss the Native Americans who were present when the Spanish moved into the area and the uneasy truce and outright conflict between the two groups. It then moves on to the advent of fur trapping in the southern Rockies, the Santa Fe Trail, the establishment and settling of the Beaubien and Miranda Land Grant, and Lucien Bonapart Maxwell’s acquisition of the grant.

This section also covers construction of Fort Union, Cimarron’s role as an Indian agency, the discovery of gold on Baldy Mountain, the Colfax County War, and subsequent events on into the early 1900s.

For a book titled Philmont, this history provides remarkably little space to the actual acquisition and development of the Boy Scout ranch. As a result, its potential readership is far larger than the many Scouts who gather each year at the Ranch. For those of us interested in the history of New Mexico’s Colfax County, including the Colfax County War, it provides a great overview of events.

As a writer of historical fiction who focuses on Northern New Mexico, I found Philmont fascinating and useful as a springboard for my own research. I highly recommend this well-written history of the Boy Scouts of America Philmont Scout Ranch and its region.