Books

THE ANNUAL BIG ARSENIC FISHING CONTEST!
A Novel
BY JOHN NICHOLS (University of New Mexico Press, 2016)

There’s a line about halfway through John Nichols’ new book that’s so completely right-on and self-referential that any reader can’t help but smile: “Let’s pretend for a minute that we’re real people instead of cartoon characters.” Coming as it does in the midst of a story about the tragedy of male friendship disguised as a largely lighthearted bromantic romp—and that the bros in question are as clichéd as they can be, and that the line is in fact uttered by a woman—makes it all the more perfect.

The narrator and his two friends, Yuri and Bubba—themselves writers of various sorts and successes—return every year to the high waters of the Río Grande to war against each other and go trout fishing. The slings and arrows of contemporary masculine relationships fly thick and fast, parsed through Nichols’ trademark humor and fluency. Whether it’s a back-and-forth featuring Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Stalin, or Johannes Kepler, the conversation is sharp and has its effects. We smile at the ferocity and intelligent playfulness of it all, but by the end, when sickness and an accident kill one and then another of the band of brothers, no one—least of all the characters—is sure where affection, jealously, hate, and despair lie.

Nichols—a longtime Taoseño and author of the beloved Milagro Beanfield War—describes this book as an allegory, as fictional as any. Yet with fishing, screenwriting, novel making, heart attacks, aging, marriages, and divorces throughout, there’s a lot of Nichols’ life in this work. There is also the voice of an experienced writer coming to terms with what it means to grow old and experience loss. The late Jim Harrison—a fellow fisherman and teller of tall tales—plumbed these waters with heartrending precision; Nichols does so with irony and laughter. Both are necessary.

Peter BG Shoemaker

 

BITTER WATERS
The Struggles of the Pecos River
BY PATRICK DEAREN (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016)

From sparkling clarity in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Pecos River tumbles through elevations and snakes down the plains of eastern New Mexico, cutting through Texas before joining the Río Grande at the Mexican border. On its way, it travels through an ancient seabed, picking up salt left behind as the ocean receded millennia ago. That salt is a key ingredient in water wars that have had New Mexico and Texas at odds for decades. In Bitter Waters, Patrick Dearen tracks both the human and natural history of this precious source of moisture in a harsh and unforgiving land. He offers enough detail to satisfy an avid student of water resources in the West, while seeding his narrative with historical stories intriguing to the general reader.

Even centuries ago, European explorers and traders found the Pecos in the plains to be brackish, yet tributaries pouring in freshwater diluted the salt and kept the water useful. With the growth of agriculture and irrigation, though, so much water was siphoned off that the river became saltier and less useful—especially by the time it reached Texas. Little surprise, then, that the quantity and quality of the water delivered downstream became the source of court fights challenging New Mexico’s compliance with a 1948 compact between the states.

Along the way, Dearen touches on interesting debates on how damaging the invasive salt cedar really is to the river, and mentions the fascinating Project Gnome, in which the federal government detonated a three-kiloton atomic bomb underground near Carlsbad in 1961 to see if the salt deposits would retain heat as a source of energy. (It didn’t work.) He also looks to the future, raising serious concerns about the effect of climate change on the Pecos River and the lands it travels through as warming temperatures allow the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts to creep northward. Dearen’s many years of involvement with the Pecos help bring its problems to light for all of us.

Jackie Jadrnak

CONTESTING THE BORDERLANDS
Interviews on the Early Southwest
BY DEBORAH LAWRENCE AND JOHN LAWRENCE (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016)

During the past two years, a group of protesters have demonstrated at the Santa Fe Fiesta’s annual re-creation of the 1692 Reconquest, contending that its kumbaya facts are wrong and its portrayals of Native peoples damaging. Both times, public discourse followed, by turns tepid and torrid, as a community attempted to focus on the hard-boiled realities of a sometimes violent past.

In Contesting the Borderlands, Deborah and John Lawrence expand that debate’s time span from ancestral cultures to post-European contact, revealing a controversial and new thread of intellectual thought about the Southwest’s long history of slavery, oppression, starvation, desperation, and massacre. Presented in a conversational, Q&A format, the authors’ discussions with leading archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnohistorians, and historians create an accessible means for laypeople to reconsider this region’s early history.

For some, this may be an introduction to emerging scholarship on the hardships of ancestral Native life, including inter- and intra-tribal warfare. Archaeologist Steven LeBlanc points to newly uncovered evidence of warfare among Ancestral Puebloan, Mogollon, and Hohokam cultures. Given those findings, he and other scientists now dispute the long-held belief that noble Four Corners cultures moved toward the Río Grande to give birth to today’s pueblos. Rather, they argue, those pueblos were well established before drought and warfare turned the Four Corners people into refugees. Anthropologist Michael Wilcox puts a similar focus on the military might of Spanish forces, an important ingredient for deciphering complex and fluid times—as well as their sometimes glossy portrayals in our era.

For LeBlanc, the evidence proves that humans are hard-wired for violence, but he notes that its occurrences in the Southwest seem tied mainly to drought and scarcity—and that provides a shred of hope: By better utilizing our systems of supply today, he says, we may avoid conflicts tomorrow. Contesting the Borderlands sets the table for considering those choices in an enlightened and historical context.

Kate Nelson

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