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.

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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 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.

INDECISION

Billy Dupre pulled his ivory-handled Colt pistol from its holster and laid it beside him on the granite boulder. He looked at the revolver thoughtfully, then twisted away to gaze at the valley below. The morning light was just beginning to turn the tops of the western mountains a pinkish-orange. He sighed and shook his head.

“You backin’ and fillin’ again?” a sleepy voice asked from the other side of the burnt-out fire.

Billy glanced around. “I can’t help it, Johnny,” he said. “I just can’t get to makin’ up my mind to killin’ a man just cuz I’m paid to do it. A man who never did nothin’ to me or mine. Someone I don’t even know.”

“You were in the army, same as me,” Johnny Kemp said. “You did it then, didn’t ya?”

“That was war. This is different.”

“And you’re from Missouri, same as me,” Kemp persisted. “Weren’t there no bushwhackers where you come from?”

“Yep, and I shot my share. But that was defendin’ my family and my home, same as when I joined up.” Billy looked toward the sunlit mountain peaks. “Not that it did me much good. By the time I got back, my ma was dead, my pa was half-crazy, and that Sally Ann–” He stood abruptly and nudged at the ashes in the fire ring with his booted toe. “There’s no embers left. You got a match?”

“That girl done and gone, didn’t she?” Johnny sat up and reached for his knapsack. “That Sally Ann?”

“It’s all done and gone.” Billy turned and began moving around the edge of the campsite, collecting small pieces of downed aspen branches. “All of it’s right done and gone.”

“So you should be wrathful enough to shoot just about any varmint that crosses your path.” Kemp stood, stretched, and began buckling his pants. “Cuz there’s no one left back there and no one here neither.” He grinned. “No one ’sides me.” He crossed to the boulder and hefted the Colt, then flipped it expertly, feeling the balance of the thing. “Nice gun,” he said.

“No, you can’t have it,” Billy said. He dropped an armload of wood beside the fire ring.

Kemp grinned, put the pistol back on the rock, and crossed to the firewood. “So what’re you gonna do if you don’t go to shootin’ for pay?” He crouched down, took out his knife, and began shaving bark into a small pile. “You gonna go back to laborin’ at one of those Etown sawmills? Become a mine flunky?”

“I might.” Billy went back to the big rock. He stared down at the valley as he reholstered the pistol. “We had us a farm in Missouri,” he said thoughtfully.

Johnny Kemp rocked back on his heels. An incredulous grin split his face. “You gonna be a farmer? A bug-ridden land-rich cash-poor dirt grubber?”

Billy Dupre stared at the sunlight touching the grasses below and glinting off the small streams that meandered across the valley toward the canyon of the Cimarron. “I might,” he said. “I just might.”

from Old One Eye Pete

Over The Trail to Mexico: Book Review

 

Over The Santa Fe Trail to Mexico cover
Joy L. Poole, editor
ISBN: 9780806157511
University of Oklahoma press, 2017

Early in the summer 1825, yet another young man joined a wagon train headed over the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico.

This particular traveler’s name was Doctor Rowland Willard. Dr. Willard’s diary during his time on the Trail and afterwards in New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Durango has now been published with detailed notes and provides a fascinating look at life in Mexico in the second half of the 1820s.

As a medical doctor, Doctor Willard’s perspective was slightly different from other Americans on the Trail and in Mexico. However, in some ways it was very much the same — he was there to make money.

He spent less than six months in New Mexico and did not find there the financial success he was looking for. However, he did find it in Chihuahua. He returned to the States in 1828 with $7000 in cash.

Willard’s diary has actually been published before. Excerpts were included in the Western Travel Review in 1829 and two years later the entire diary was added as an appendix to The Personal Narrative of James Ohio Pattie. The physical diary disappeared into Willard family archives and didn’t resurface until  2005, when it began its journey to publication as Over The Santa Fe Trail To Mexico, the travel diaries and autobiography of Doctor Rowland Willard

This edition provides not only the diary but also Joy L. Poole’s extensive notes and Willard’s autobiography, published here for the first time. This book is worth its price for Poole’s notes alone, which provide the context for fully appreciating Willard’s experiences and observations.

If you’re a student of the Santa Fe trail or of New Mexico history in the late 1820s, Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico  will be a valuable addition to your library. If you’re simply looking for a good read about old New Mexico— or old Mexico— I would definitely recommend it.

Rosary Without Beads: Book Review

Rosary Without Beads cover
by Diana Holguín-Balogh
ISBN: 9781432844745
Five Star/Cengage, 2018

Rosary Without Beads has changed my mind about Billy the Kid.

I’d been told that, in addition to being an outlaw, Billy the Kid was also a lady’s man. That didn’t make him more attractive to me. A thug and a womanizer. Why would I find that appealing?

However, Diana Holguín-Balogh’s masterful fictional portrayal of Billy the Kid and a young woman who falls for him has me seeing Billy in a new light.

Rosary Without Beads presents a Billy who’s passionate about justice and fair play, and loyal to a fault—characteristics which end up placing him on the wrong side of the law. He also has a facility with English and Spanish that could sweet talk a rattlesnake out of its rattles.

Billy’s linguistic charm is a primary reason I like this book so much. Holguín-Balogh has a gift for writing broken English/Spanish so that it’s not only comprehensible, but has a music all its own. This is true not only of Billy’s verbal skills, but also of the other characters, especially the female protagonist, Ambrosia.

Ambrosia doesn’t have an easy life. She’s been promised to a man who would really rather have her sister. That’s bound to make a girl feel unattractive. So when Billy shows up and shows some interest, she’s pretty much swept off her feet. She doesn’t succumb to his charms easily, though. Holguín-Balogh does a great job of expressing this girl’s mixed emotions about Billy all the way through the novel.

I suppose I can safely tell you that the Kid dies at the end of this book. I suspect that’s a story most of us know. However, Rosary Without Beads presents a take on the usual explanations for the circumstances of Billy’s death, and what happens afterward, which may surprise you. But you’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out what that take is.

If you’re looking for a historical novel you can sink your teeth into and feel like you’ve learned something in the process, I recommend this book!