As a coastal person, I was uncomfortable reading Arizona. The dry cracked land, the absence of emerald-green, and the silence where dripping should be were disorienting to me. I think my soul might dry up and blow away if I were to move to the desert. But where I feel withered and desolate, the people who are native to the land find magic – the sky is so big that shamans walk among the stars, and the first summer rain is so significant it signals the beginning of a new year.
Aside from The Bean Trees, the books I chose for Arizona were challenging for me. I don’t know if the landscape made my mouth too dry, or if the books I chose weren’t my kinds of books, or (and this is my hunch) if it’s because I read them in winter, when I would normally curl up with The Shipping News and cold snowy books, but I found myself wishing for something else, a different kind of place. A place of blues and greens, not of reds and browns. I will say, though, that what Arizona lacks in water, it makes up for in characters. The three books I selected from Arizona were filled with scrappy, no-nonsense folks for whom parched land, prickly plants, and flash floods cultivated a toughness that I don’t have, but I admire.
They also cultivated in me a hunger for Tex Mex food.
Novel: Half Broke Horses
Author: Jeannette Walls, born Phoenix, AZ
Setting: 1920s through 40s Arizona
Categories: Historical fiction
Half Broke Horses, set in Texas and Arizona, is a true life novel of Lily Casey Smith, author Jeannette Walls’s sassy, swaggering pioneer grandma. Fans of Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle will appreciate going deeper into the Walls family history with Half Broke Horses, which takes us back to the beginning, when Walls’s grandmother, Lily, broke horses on her family ranch as a girl, and as a young teen rode 500 miles, alone, on her horse, Patches, from Texas to Arizona to take a teaching job in the 1920s. Walls calls this a novel because it was necessary that she fill in details and recreate dialogue, but the voice and wild events, like Lily’s grand entrance in her ranch town’s premier of Gone With the Wind, to which she wore a dress she made from curtains, are authentic and amusing. Lily is spunky and resourceful, a pioneer woman, and I loved her sass:
“Don’t you ‘little lady’ me,” I said. “I break horses. I brand steers. I run a ranch with a couple dozen crazy cowboys on it, and I can beat them all in poker. I’ll be damned if some nincompoop is going to stand there and tell that I don’t have what it takes to fly that dinky heap of tin.” (Lily Casey Smith to a flight instructor who pooh-poohed her when she wanted to take flying lessons from him)
Half Broke Horses is filled with great lines like this, some that characterize Lily, as the one above, and others that characterize the land and the varmints who called it home:
As I sat by my little fire at night, the coyotes howled just like they always had, and the huge moon turned the desert silver.
Arizona, with its wide open spaces and no one peering over your shoulder, had always been a haven for folks who didn’t like the law or other busybodies to know what they were up to.
I didn’t think this was as compelling as The Glass Castle, but I appreciated Walls’s ability to paint the Arizona landscape, and sear me with the desert suns’ heat, and show me a woman with sand, whose grit ensured her survival in an unforgiving place.
Novel: La Maravilla
Author: Alfredo Véa, Jr., born 1952 near Phoenix, Arizona
Setting: 1950s-1960s, outside of Phoenix, AZ
Categories: Native American Fiction, Hispanic Fiction
Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s beyond the fizzled out end of Buckeye Road – beyond where asphalt turns to dirt after Buckeye Road has left Phoenix – La Maravilla is a novel of the displaced fringes who congregate along this sandy road in the Arizona desert: negritos and indios, prostitutes and transvestites, Arkies and Okies, and Beto, a young boy who lives with his Mexican healer grandmother and his Yaqui Indian grandfather. Beto’s mother has abandoned him there in her quest for a shiny, new, dust-free life in California. Beto’s home at the end of Buckeye Road and his Mestizo-Yaqui-Filipino-American heritage reflect the author’s own background: Alfredo Véa, Jr., an American author with Mexican, Native American, and Filipino heritage grew up with his grandparents in the Buckeye barrio outside of Phoenix, just as Beto does.
Peppered with Spanish and Yaqui phrases; brimming with frijoles, burritos, and an elaborate Mexican fiesta complete with sixty pounds of pork and beef that simmered all morning “with fifty cloves of garlic, ten chopped onions, cups of crushed comino and a handful of cilantro;” and populated with a Catholic Mexican curandera (healer), the Mighty Clouds of Joy Negro Church, and Huichol, Yaqui, and Tarahumara Indians who go out into the desert to fly on spirit journeys, and eat peyote, and initiate Beto into these ways as part of his manhood ceremony, La Maravilla serves a rich, flavorful, satisfying banquete of Arizona culture:
The woman in black looked up into the high, endless sky. The skin of the hand that shaded her eyes was browned and softened by the tannins of her life.
Neither Manuel nor Josephina was the same person in their different languages.
The Arkies were kind of like Mexicans, the boy felt; they could suffer and do hard work and they always fed everybody’s kids.
Ghosts are like tumbleweeds. No one pays attention to the plant when it’s green. No one even knows what it’s called. But when it’s dead it receives a name and people who see the weeds rolling across open fields are suddenly stricken with loneliness.
I wish I could mourn for him like those crazy Mexicanos. The bake death and eat it. They roll it in sugar and put it on sticks for the children to lick at.
I admit that there were long portions of the book that dragged for me; I admit that were I not reading this for my Andrea Reads America project, I might have abandoned the book; and I admit there were many times when I wondered where Véa was going with this, and why he inserted this scene and that character. I’m still not sure I know, and I think the book could have been distilled for more potency, but like many books that I’m not sure I like when I’m struggling through them, my mind has returned many times to La Maravilla. I loved Véa’s use of Latino and Yaqui words, how they gave the narrative an authentic feel for being among the characters. Like Two Old Women, the other book I’ve read so far by a Native American author (Alaska), La Maravilla is filled with wisdom, spirituality, and a deep respect for elders, family and sticking together as a community.
Novel: The Bean Trees
Author: Barbara Kingsolver, lived 20 years of adult life in Tucson, AZ
Setting: late 1970s Tucson, Arizona
Categories: Fiction, American Fiction
Set in 1970s Tucson, Arizona, The Bean Trees is the story of Taylor Greer, a plucky, lovable twenty-something who drives away from her rural, dead-end Kentucky home town in her ’55 Volkswagen bug with “no windows to speak of, and no back seat and no starter.” She leaves Pittman County, where folks “had kids just about as fast as they could fall down the well and drown,” and heads west where, at a pit stop somewhere in Oklahoma, a small Cherokee child is deposited in the front seat of her car by a native woman – the child’s aunt – who tells Taylor to the child away from here. The old woman will not take no for an answer as she turns and walks away to face the child’s father – and abuser.
Like so many of Kingsolver’s works, The Bean Trees is a gratifyingly readable book; I think I finished it in three or four nights. Filled with funny Kentucky colloquialisms and the dry desert air of Tucson, The Bean Trees can feel light in its page-turning readability, but flowing beneath that lively tone are undercurrents of weighty issues. True to form, Kingsolver weaves in the strong pulse of nature,
At three o’clock in the afternoon all the cicadas stopped buzzing at once. They left such an emptiness in the air it hurt your ears. Around four o’clock we heard thunder.
If you looked closely you could see that in some places the rain didn’t make it all the way to the ground. Three-quarters of the way down from the sky it just vanished into the dry air.
Everything alive had thorns.
and heart wrenching themes of social justice:
Mrs. Parsons muttered that she thought this was a disgrace. “Before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America… They ought to stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs.
When people run for their lives they frequently neglect to bring along their file cabinets of evidence.
Set in a border state and dealing with issues of immigration and human cooperation, The Bean Trees is a story of friendship, and heart, and symbiosis. It is a story of plants and people thriving in poor soil and thorny country, not because they are tough, or better adapted, or because they are strong enough to do it alone. They survive because they open themselves to being helped, and to helping each other out.
For Further Reading in Arizona
Books that have been recommended to me but I have not yet read:
Concrete Desert by Jon Talton
Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
Mojave Crossing by Louis L’Amour
Goats by Mark Jude Poirier
Bisbee/17 by Robert Houston
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea (nonfiction)
Crossers by Philip Caputo
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. To follow along, please visit me at andreareadsamerica.com.