The essential New Mexico library, plus where to get your books fix.
by Karen Ray
"His steamer was wrecked and sunk in the Galveston harbour, and he had lost all his worldly possessions except his books, which he saved at the risk of his life." — Death Comes for the Archbishop
I have enthusiastically collected New Mexico-themed books for a couple of decades now and enjoy them for inspiration, use them for research, and just generally revel in the topics they cover about my beloved state. Several years ago I sold every extra non-New Mexico book I could stand to give up to purchase a copy of Cow Dust and Saddle Leather by Ben Kemp and J.C. Dykes, a volume I'd asked Coas Books in Las Cruces to find. The anticipation of waiting for a requested book to turn up is part of the fun of the hunt.
New Mexico has served as setting and subject of many books written by authors who have made its uniquely beautiful landscape home. But which should be part of an essential New Mexican library? Choosing which to include is admittedly a subjective task.
I agonized over which books to give place of honor for this best of New Mexico roundup. How to choose one and not include another? It's like asking which of your children is your favorite; it can't be done. So, with the caveat that I know readers will have their own favorites, following are brief synopses, in no particular order, of the ones that made my personal list. If you have a local book-lover on your holiday gift list, consider this a place to start.
I also polled four area bookstore owners about what books would be on their lists. They know their books and are persistent in tracking down elusive books for their customers. These folks are owners of some of the best places to spend a day in the southern part of the state, hands down. As fellow bibliophile Mark Twain once said, "In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them."
Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West by C.L. Sonnichsen is one of the foundational books for acquiring an overview of the New Mexico west as it was and is. This is the place to start for anyone seeking to understand a bit of western culture as it was played out here in the southern part of the state. You need to know about Fountain and Fall, cattle and lawmen, miners and Apaches, Garrett and the Kid. Sonnichsen writes: "On a clear day you take in a panorama of 300 miles of heaven and earth, and it puts you in your proper place."
No Life for a Lady by Agnes Morley Cleaveland is a classic memoir of a young ranch woman in the Datil area beginning in 1886. It is dedicated to: "All those Pioneer Women whose stories can never be adequately told but whose courage, endurance and determination to hold fast to their highest ideals contributed to the making of America." The protagonist's first sight of the wide open country leading to her new home is memorable: "No sign of human habitation greeted us as we topped the divide west of town and gazed across at the blue bank of haze that blanketed the western sky — the Datil Mountains, our destination, 40 miles away." The book details the amazing amount of freedom and responsibility young people in New Mexico often experienced.
Black Range Tales: Chronicling Sixty Years of Life and Adventure in the Southwest by James A. McKenna is an eyewitness description of the life of a miner, prospector and explorer in the West of the late 1800s. McKenna, a true gentleman, relates with classic western humor and rare poignancy the adventures, legends and characters he encountered while living in southern New Mexico. This book is suggested reading for New Mexico newcomers and history buffs alike.
Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of New Mexico by James E. and Barbara H. Sherman is a comprehensive look at "more than 130 of the state's old and defunct mining, farming, railroad and lumbering communities." The book is full of historical photos from the towns' heydays as well as more current shots of what remains (or did, when it was written in 1975). There is even a map section to help you with your weekend explorations. The well-researched back stories for each entry are loads of fun; I often curl up on a winter night with my dog-eared copy of this book just to daydream.
The Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History by Paul Horgan is a beautifully written, extensive overview of our history-making river. His preface to the fourth edition states, "In its length of nearly 2,000 miles and its cultural evidence encompassing 10 centuries and more, the Great River remains the unifying vein of history not only of the life adjacent to its banks, but also of the greater southwest." Horgan, winner of the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes in history, achieved his goal of producing "a sense of historical experience rather than a bare record." The river is the anchor point around which time, history and culture revolve in New Mexico.
The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols is a rollicking good read set in northern New Mexico. The characters are hilariously recognizable here in the southern regions, too. Those of you with agricultural connections may feel as if you live parts of this story on a regular basis. Derek Fisher of Santa Fe writes: "There is one thing about The Milagro Beanfield War.... You cannot put it down. I have lived in northern New Mexico for most of my life, and there is no written word that comes close to the people here except for The Milagro Beanfield War. I must say that growing up in a small northern New Mexico town, I have seen most of this story first hand. (I went to school with the young versions of these characters). This is such a comedic book, I fell off the couch several times laughing so hard it hurt." The 1988 film version was shot in Truchas, NM.
Skinwalkers? A Thief of Time? Hmm, how to choose a favorite Hillerman book? A prolific, award-winning author, Tony Hillerman was best known for his series of 18 mystery books featuring Navajo police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. Wes Studi and Adam Beach played the officers in the PBS film version of three of the books (Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits, A Thief of Time). "It's always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures," Hillerman once told Publishers Weekly. "I think it's important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways."
I have to pick both:
A Thief of Time — Deals with pot hunters, a missing anthropologist and sacred ground as well as a couple of corpses, all set in the Four Corners area on the Navajo reservation. Jim Trageser in the Chula Vista Star-News writes, "The characterizations are also of the highest order, with the major players being fleshed out, with all the faults and shortcomings inherent to real-life human beings.... Reading Hillerman is pleasure not only for the fine story he tells, but for the sheer joy of watching how he does it."
Skinwalkers — Someone tries to kill Jim Chee and three murdered people are found with small pieces of bone in their bodies at various locations on the reservation. Several clues guide Leaphorn and Chee to follow leads related to Navajo skin-walkers.
Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford is the story of southerner Josh Arnold, a teenager spending the years of World War II in small-town northern New Mexico while his father is in the Navy. Josh and his friends Steenie and Marcia bear witness to the earthy humor, swagger and pathos of adolescence. The book is a humorous, bittersweet take on the life, characters and cultural mix of Bradford's small town. The most memorable dead horse scene in print will stay with you for years. Bradford's pithy dialogue begs for some out-loud reading and by all means, if the last time you read this was for high-school English class, pick it up again. The 1971 film version earned a Golden Globe Award.
Alburquerque: A Novel by native son Rudolfo Anaya is written through the lens of boxing champion Abran Gonzalez, a product of two cultures. (The title really is
"Alburquerque," as in the original 1706 Ranchos de Alburquerque.) Abran and his bicultural friend Joe "learn together the ways in which community and family might once more be linked by a lasting connection to 'the earth and the rhythms of the people,'" according to local author Kevin Mcilvoy's review in the Los Angeles Times. The novel is woven around ceremonies and fiestas as it explores some of the issues that have always intrigued New Mexicans: land, water, class and culture. Another of Anaya's well-known novels, Bless Me, Ultima, was produced as a film in 2013.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather tells the fictional story of Bishop Jean Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant's arrival and subsequent life work in New Mexico. As Jeff Berg noted in Desert Exposure ("Local Characters," January), "Cather studied up on many real folks, including Jean-Baptise Lamy, using different names to portray him and others in the book while slipping in real-life luminaries such as Kit Carson."
With all the reading I've done over the years, I'd missed this one. What a mistake! Cather has an exceptional ability to create fine art with the written word: "Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!"
Following are four great places to go for your book fix, with the booksellers' own picks. Take your list and you can knock out your Christmas shopping in a delightful afternoon.
Readers' Cove Used Books and Gallery in Deming has been located at 200 S. Copper St. for 17 years. Current owners Margaret Fairman and Daniel Gauss bought the store in May 2012 and kept the name. Margaret's deeply ingrained love of reading and books has been with her since childhood, when she'd talk with friends about owning a bookstore.
"When we travel we go to the used bookstores," she says. "I can tell you all over the country where the used bookstores are." Her favorite topics tend to fiction, memoirs and nature writings. She just finished reading a book about snakes and commented that "there's not time to read at the store but I'm always taking books home."
Dan's photography (Shot on Site Photography) is displayed in the store. Margaret says, "It's mostly New Mexico-related: mountains, landscape, flora and fauna, New Mexico creatures, plus vintage cars, fireworks and other miscellaneous." She also carries gift items such as collectible dolls and Kachinas.
The Cove's bestselling titles include anything to do with New Mexico and the Apaches. "As soon as I get something in related to Apaches or the Apache Wars, it goes," Margaret says. People passing through the area are often interested in anything about Billy the Kid. Other popular books at Readers' Cove are The Great River and Black Range Tales as well as Bless Me, Ultima. She recommends Ben K. Green's stories of horse trading, wild cows and western veterinary life and also sells "a lot of natural history-type books." There is a big interest in western history and Margaret says, "I'm amazed at the variety of things people come in here looking for."
Margaret Fairman's Essential New Mexico Library
Black Range Tales by James A. McKenna
The Great River by Paul Horgan
Catherine's Son: The Story of a Boy Who Became an Outlaw by James L. Smith (written from perspective of Billy the Kid's mother)
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Milagro Beanfield War trilogy by John Nichols
Madame Millie: Bordellos from Silver City to Ketchikan by Max Evans
No Life for a Lady by Agnes Morley Cleaveland
Gila Descending and Gila Libre! by Dutch Salmon
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