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.

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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.

New Mexico’s First Protestant Church

On Saturday, May 21, 1853, Baptist missionaries in Santa Fe began construction of the first Protestant church in New Mexico, located on the corner of what is now Grant and Griffin Street. The Reverend Henry W. Reed and the Reverend L. Smith officiated.

May 21 illustration

Henry Reed had arrived in Santa Fe in Summer 1846 and opened a school. Smith arrived several years later. They seem to have been focused on converting New Mexicans to Protestantism rather than serving the Anglo population. In 1851, Reade reported to his constituency back East that he’d been in Taos to share information about his Baptist school curriculum with Padre Martinez and had attended the Catholic services there. He disapprovingly described the mass as “not above a whisper and in Latin.”

The Baptist church services in Santa Fe were apparently in Spanish and English. At the cornerstone-laying ceremony on May 21, Reverend Smith spoke in Spanish and Reverend Read in English. This bilinqual approach doesn’t seem to have been enough to attract a large congregation. The adobe brick building was sold to the Presbyterians in 1866, at the end of the Civil War.

The Presbyterians eventually pulled the adobe building down and replaced it in 1882 with a brick structure. That building was replaced in 1939 with a Pueblo Revival building designed by John Gaw Meem, which is still in use today.

Sources: Thomas Harwood, The History of New Mexico Spanish and English Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1850 to 1910, Vol. I. Albuquerque: El Abogado Press, 1908; E. A. Mares, ed., Padre Martinez: New Perspectives From Taos, Taos: Millicent Rogers Museum, 1988; Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol. II. Cedar Rapids: The Torch Press, 1912.

Texas Stage Route Is Better In Winter Months

On April 8, 1853, the readers of the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette were reminded that winter wasn’t truly over in New Mexico—the mail and passengers to and from Texas were still being transported under the “winter arrangement.”

There really wasn’t any difference between the summer and winter time schedule. Each month, the stage left Santa Fe on the 15th and arrived in El Paso six to eight days later. The next leg of the trip was from El Paso to San Antonio, where it  arrived on the 14th or 15th of the following month. So it took about a week to get from Santa Fe to El Paso, a trip which takes about five hours today. Interestingly, the fare from Santa Fe to El Paso was $30, only about $10 more than the cost of gas for the same route today. In fact, if wear and tear on one’s vehicle is factored in, it might have been cheaper to travel between Santa Fe and El Paso in 1853 than it is now. That is, of course, if you have seven or eight days for the trip.

April 8 illustration

On the other hand, the cost to travel from Santa Fe to San Antonio was significantly higher in 1853 than it is today—$125 as opposed to $48 in fuel costs. The timeframe for the trip is also considerably less now—about 12 hours as opposed to 30 days.

One thing has remained the same. The advertisement in the Gazette points out that the trip to and from “the States” via the San Antonio route was considerably more pleasant during the winter months than was travel via the Santa Fe Trail to Independence, Missouri. The southern route was, and is still likely to be, “entirely free from the intense cold and heavy snows that so frequently obstruct” the northern Trail.

There was another advantage to taking the stage to San Antonio. Passengers were not required to stand guard.

Sources: Santa Fe Weekly Gazette, April 8, 1853, first page; MapQuest.com, accessed March 5, 2019.