The third book in Mary Armstrong’s Two Valleys saga, The White Sands, takes a further dive into the history of southern New Mexico as it explores the events that led up to the famous feud between Albert Fountain and Albert Fall. While Fall would go on to be implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal, Fountain would disappear into the White Sands in 1896 with his ten-year-old son Henry.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and Armstrong’s novel The White Sands. In this book, her narrator, Jesús Messi, gets to know the Lee family, the clan that was thought by many to be responsible for the Fountain disappearance. What he discovers is that there are two sides to every story, and more than one way to deal with a problem.
Armstrong uses Messi’s memory loss, suffered at the end of Book 2, to place him in the midst of the Tularosa Basin and the Lee network of family and friends. As part of that group, he comes to understand their perspective, which makes things awkward for him when he returns to Las Cruces. The teenage Jesús is caught between two worlds as he realizes that neither side is totally in the right—or the wrong.
His struggles are thoughtfully portrayed and provide a great way for Armstrong to explore the antagonism between the political parties at the time and the way those political divisions became deeply personal. In fact, the attitudes and events she recounts are eerily echoed in today’s news. They involve strong, opinionated personalities, convoluted legal questions, impatient and potentially coerced witnesses, and much more.
If you’re interested in southern New Mexico history in the late 1800s, the way our past is echoed by our present, or simply want an insightful coming-of-age story about an intelligent and perceptive young man, I highly recommend The White Sands.
The San Augustin: The Two Valleys Saga, Book Two by Mary Armstrong continues the journey of Jesús Messi, fictional nephew of real-life Colonel Albert J. Fountain, attorney in late 1800s Mesilla, New Mexico and nemesis of cattle rustlers throughout the region.
Jesús’s story began in The Mesilla, when he joined the Fountain family to read law with the Colonel. It continues in The San Augustin as Jesús learns about love and politics as well as law. He plays a growing role in Fountain’s burgeoning practice, meets the young but already ambitious Albert Bacon Fall, and experiences a growing sense of danger as Fall and other men who’ll be blamed for the 1896 disappearance of the Colonel and his young son become active in New Mexico’s Mesilla and Tularosa valleys.
The second of a projected five-book series, The San Augustin moves the Fountain saga along while also allowing the reader to get to know Jesús and the Fountain family more thoroughly. If you’re interested in the history of southern New Mexico and/or the Fountain disappearances, I recommend this book!
If you recognize the name Albert Fountain, you’ll almost certainly associate him with his disappearance in the New Mexico desert in 1896 along with his eight-year-old son. And that’s probably almost everything you know about the man.
But Fountain’s disappearance happened as the result of events that took place well before that early February day. In fact, he’d been a polarizing figure in southern New Mexico for a number of years. He’d defended Billy the Kid in court and made other decisions that brought attention to himself—and not necessarily in a good way.
Mary Armstrong’s novel The Mesilla provides a fictional account of some of the events in Fountain’s career prior to his disappearance. This story, the first in Armstrong’s Two Valleys Saga series, centers around Fountain’s defense of Bronco Sue, a woman who was accused of killing her husband, one of a series of men she’d cohabitated with. The courtroom scenes alone are worth the price of this book.
Armstrong has clearly done her homework. The novel is packed with information and anecdotes about New Mexico’s Mesilla and Tularosa Valleys in the late 1800s, which she feeds seamlessly into the story line. If you’re interested in the history of these areas or are just looking for a well-written historical novel, I recommend The Mesilla.