Book Review: Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico

Meketa.Louis Felsenthal.Cover
UNM Press, 1982
ISBN-13: 978-0826306043

Most of the people prominent in New Mexico history have had at least one book written about them (Kit Carson, Padre Martinez, Bishop Lamy, and Thomas Catron, to name a few). However, there aren’t many books about people who played minor roles in New Mexico’s history. That’s why Jacqueline Dorgan Meketa’s biography of Louis Felsenthal is so valuable.

Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico tells the story of a young Prussian Jew who arrived in Santa Fe in 1858 with high hopes. He had a gift for language and law, and was extremely interested in New Mexico’s history. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Army and saw action at Valverde. He stayed in the military after the war and led patrols along the Santa Fe Trail that ensured the safety of the mail as well as stage passengers.

But Louis Felsenthal did not become famous. His passion for preserving New Mexico’s archives led him into conflict with the politicians of the day, and the effects of a stroke caused some of his fellow Anglos to believe he had an alcohol problem. As a result, he was denied the Veterans assistance to which he was entitled. He died in poverty and obscurity.

In some ways, this is a sad tale of a talented young man who didn’t achieve fame and fortune. But in other ways, Louis Felsenthal’s story is a heartening one. He’s one of many Anglos who came to New Mexico looking for adventure and fortune and instead fell in love with the land and its history, and did his best to protect it and to preserve its historical record. He may not be famous now, but he contributed to the society of his day and to posterity to the best of his abilities.

For this reason, and for its discussion of New Mexico in the second half of the 1800s, I recommend Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico.

Book Review: The French in New Mexico

Patorni.The French in NM.Cover
French In America Press, 2020
ISBN: 9780578631158

While it’s fairly common knowledge that people with French surnames trapped and traded in New Mexico during the mountain man era, The French In New Mexico identifies many other French connections in the American Southwest. In fact, Francois-Marie Patorni points out that Franciscan priest Marco de Nice—the man whose report of cities of gold prompted the Spanish incursion into what is today the American Southwest—was French. He may have been in New Spain and subject to the Spanish church there, but he was born in Nice.

This is where The French in New Mexico begins. But it doesn’t end there. Patorni walks his reader through four centuries of New Mexico history, establishing links to France every step of the way.  Patorni covers major figures as well as minor ones and groups his material in easily-accessible headings, by topic (wine growing, the church, merchants, etc.) as well as location (Santa Fe, Mora, the lower Pecos, etc.). This makes the book great for both a comprehensive overview of events in New Mexico from a French perspective as well as for locating material about a particular topic or location.

This book is a fascinating read with a new approach to the history of New Mexico. The information it provides reflects both Patorni’s scholarship and his enthusiasm. This is a well-written, well documented, and unique take on New Mexican history. If you’re interested in New Mexico’s history and/or the contribution of the French people to the American Southwest, I recommend The French In New Mexico.

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: 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!

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.