Home > Book reviews > Books capturing the American Southwest

Books capturing the American Southwest

One of the things I like to do to get a sense of a new place where I visit is to read some of the local literature, an activity I’ve pursued during my sabbatical at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I define “local” fairly broadly—to include Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico—where I’ve done most of my traveling while out here. I’ve been fortunate to get recommendations (and book loans!) from neighbors, acquaintances, and local bookstores. Here are some of the more memorable books recommended to me.

John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War describes a battle over water rights in northern New Mexico. The primary focus is on the development and portrayal of characters (archetypes? stereotypes?) that reflect the independent spirit of a community of people who mainly want to be left alone. In the afterword to my edition of the book, Nichols notes “I hadn’t planned out the novel; I just started typing.” And it kind of shows, for better and worse, with a loosely-connected slow-moving story about amusing people doing odd things. And if you only have two hours, you can watch the well-received Robert Redford film adaptation of the book (disclaimer: I’ve not seen it yet).

Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang has something of a similar tone, focusing on a group of people who share little more than a strong sense of environmental responsibility in the face of building, dam, bridge, and road construction in the southwest. Brought together on a rafting trip, they decide the way to exhibit their love of nature is to destroy all aspects of the construction: the buildings and bridges and such, as well as the bulldozers and other machines that aided in their construction. Like the previous book, this one is more about the development of the characters and the portrayal of the landscape rather than telling a story—which can be a good thing if you want a sense of the American southwest.

From a very different genre is Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. It’s not often that a book can give away the ending in the title and still be worth reading, but this book manages to do just that—mainly because it’s more about the characters and the land than a story. It’s loosely based on a true story about Catholic priests sent to the American Southwest in the mid-1800s, and it does a great job of capturing the great difficulties in traveling across the desolate landscape of New Mexico (which still isn’t trivial, even with a giant GPS-equipped minivan). Cather paints a picture of the landscape that still exists today—reading this book will provide a nice preview if you’re planning to spend time in this area.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, which I talked about extensively in a previous post, captures life in the dust bowl (parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas) around the time of the Great Depression. The local towns around here named the book the area’s common book, leading to lots of interesting events with reflections passed down from those who survived during this era. It’s a good book made better by the events that were held in the area.

There are a couple of Boulder authors who came highly recommended by our local independent book store, the Boulder Book Store. Marlys Millhiser’s best-known book, The Mirror, was my favorite of the recommendations. It’s a sci-fi/horror mix about a young woman who switched places with her grandmother, leaving the the granddaughter to navigate the early 20th century with late 20th century knowledge and skills. But the most interesting aspect was in tracing and reflecting upon the evolving lifestyle in Boulder and the surrounding areas during the 20th century. Millhiser has written a number of other books, including a popular series of mysteries. And on the topic of mysteries, I read one of an extensive series by Boulder author Steven White and looked through a couple of others—they seemed like the usual mystery novels, but with references to Arapahoe Avenue and King Soopers and such sprinkled through them. If you like books by authors like John D. MacDonald and Dean Koontz and Robert Parker, then White’s mysteries (and Millhiser’s) will probably appeal to you. It’s not my favorite genre though, so I’m a bad person to comment on it.

So that’s the “local” reading I’ve done—comments and suggestions greatly appreciated.

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Categories: Book reviews
  1. January 30, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Two other books recommended to me via email by people who read this post: David Baron’s “The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature”, a non-fiction book about Boulder’s attempt to co-exist with mountain lions; and Steven Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage”, about the exploration of the west by Lewis and Clark.

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