RIVER OF SPIRITS
A Natural History of New Mexico’s Las Animas Creek
Edited by Harley G. Shaw (HISTORY PRESS, 2017)
Las Animas Creek carved the most rugged portion of the Black Range. For 40 miles, its watershed presents geological mysteries, botanical wonders, and a history of humans who struggled to tame its punishing terrain. Here lived Mimbres cultures, Apache chief Victorio, lost-cause miners, Buffalo Soldiers, and dry-land farmers. Here stood the last grizzly in New Mexico. And here lies one of the least studied but most interesting portions of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.
Ted Turner’s 1992 purchase of the Ladder Ranch set a course toward research and conservation, and one result is this volume, mixing scientific observations and historical data with transcendent nature writing. Harley G. Shaw, a wildlife research biologist who retired to Hillsboro, gathered scientists, historians, and ranch hands for chapters that gather what’s known, which still leaves questions. Why is this watershed the only place in New Mexico with thickets of Arizona sycamores? Did bison roam here? Where did the Mimbres people go?
Historical accounts underscore the pluck this land demanded. Horses throw their riders, hikers crack their skulls, drought and the Depression kill ranching opportunities, snowstorms or floods strand the ill-prepared. Biologist Travis Perry lays out his intrepid attempt to track and capture a mountain lion and her cubs, ultimately coming no closer than a brief glimpse of a playful cub. His journey failed, but also exemplified why the Spanish called this Río de las Animas (“River of Spirits”). “I sat and sweated in the noonday sun, dirty, smelly, blistered, sore, scraped, bruised, exhausted, and foiled in a capture attempt that had cost me so much in time, money, energy, and effort. And I was satisfied. I was grateful for my station. I was privileged. I was sitting on the edge of a vast wilderness, high above a stream of life in an arid land, watching a wild mountain lion cub playing in the October sun.” —Kate Nelson
THE BOOK OF ARCHIVES AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE MORA VALLEY, NEW MEXICO
By A. Gabriel Melendez (UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS, 2017)
History is tangible in New Mexico. Objects carry with them powerful and sometimes surprising personal and communal stories. In The Book of Archives and Other Stories from the Mora Valley, A. Gabriel Meléndez travels a snaking history in the region north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where holy men, politicians, soldiers, and everyday people ride the sinuous currents of history. The collection takes its name from a leather portfolio in which the character Agustín Valdez carries receipts, diaries, land grants, and more. When a bomb blast destroys it, the memories rain down like confetti from the collective memories of a community. The slim volume holds 42 vignettes charting various heroes across this broad, busy swath of time since the farming community’s founding in 1835. The stories are written in a mix of present and past tense. Rich with idiosyncratic dialogue, it draws you into the births, courtships, and tragedies that add up to a kind of half-real, half-imagined oral history. The portrait that emerges is complex, colored in local legend, and shaded with hints of true stories. The frame is filled out with song lyrics, newspaper clippings, poems, depositions, and other odds and ends, the resilient documents that remind us of the past—proof of history in our fractured sets of memories and rumor.
Each short story is reproduced in Spanish through a careful translation. The book offers a humorous, soulful, and deeply human fictional account of a very real place—the perfect read for anyone seeking an authentic feel for a tiny slice of New Mexico. —Andrew Roush
Then and Now
(LA FONDA HOLDINGS, 2016)
Since the 17th century, some form of lodging has occupied the southeast corner of the Santa Fe Plaza. Surely boasting dubious repute for much of that frontier lifespan, the property began to gleam once the Santa Fe Railway purchased it in the 1920s, and the Fred Harvey Company’s top execs transformed it into a jewel of their hospitality crown. As envisioned then by architects John Gaw Meem and Mary Jane Colter, La Fonda’s aesthetics clarified the definition of Santa Fe style, and its white-linen service drew politicians, movie stars, Manhattan Project scientists, and writers like Simone de Beauvoir, who declared it “the most beautiful hotel in America, perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life.”
In recent years, the hotel enjoyed a welcome renovation and expansion under the leadership of co-owner Jenny Kimball (see “What Would Mary Do?” nmmag.us/MaryColter). She called upon some of the hotel’s best friends to contribute chapters to this oversized book, including Harvey biographer Stephen Fried, who’s crafted a near cottage industry around “Fredhead” fever (see “In Harvey Heaven,” nmmag.us/inharveyheaven). Harvey’s innovations set new standards for restaurants and hotels along the western reaches of the Santa Fe Railway, nurturing a tourist economy and inspiring other businesses to adopt customer-first principles. Fried lays the foundation with Harvey history, then turns the book over to other writers for short essays on the hotel’s art collection, hospitality, cuisine, graphic design, and roster of famous guests. The greatest pleasure lies in page upon page of historical images—photographs, menus, and other ephemera—along with modern-day peeks at the craftsmanship that went into its rebirth. For those who still can’t get enough, the hotel offers free docent-led tours on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays that ensure you will never look at a banister the same way again. (For tour details, call 505-982-5511 or go to lafondasantafe.com.) —Kate Nelson
LAS VEGAS, NEW MEXICO
By Joseph A. Lordi (CARTOLINA PRESS, 2016)
In 2010, Joseph A. Lordi compiled a black-and-white photography book about the “other” Las Vegas that consumed a comparatively spare 147 pages. But the librarian-historian couldn’t contain his interest and, with encouragement from the Las Vegas First Independent Business Alliance, has produced a new edition that races past 400 pages of about 1,000 photographs, many in color, all beautifully reproduced. The images trace the town’s cow-town roots through the railroad boom and into the 20th century, making the book a delightful resource for people with ties to Las Vegas and a nearly unbeatable historical reference. It certainly earns a prominent spot on library shelves throughout the state.
Once one of the largest cities in the Southwest, Las Vegas still boasts a gorgeous array of buildings in a variety of significant architectural styles. Lordi devotes numerous pages to residential areas and the region’s many places of worship (the state’s first synagogue was built there), schools, and grand hotels. Heavy on history, the book barely dabbles in the town’s post-railroad years and its recent upswing at the hands of Fred Harvey–inspired entrepreneurs like Allan Affeldt (see “Vegas Revival,” nmmag.us/VegasNew).
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but text can tell a mighty tale as well—more than captions can, no matter how detailed they are. Other books will have to fill in the blanks Lordi leaves behind. The fact is, he couldn’t have wedged in another word, and Vegas’ history is still unfolding. The book is a fund-raiser for the business alliance, whose members throughout Las Vegas sell it; Plaza Antiques (505-454-9447) will also ship copies. —Kate Nelson
A Denise Aragon Mystery
By James Scarantino (MIDNIGHT INK, 2017)
Beginning precisely where his debut mystery novel left off, James Scarantino’s Compromised increases the number of diabolical characters, adds another layer of psycho-history to his heroine, and ladles out enough blood and guts to rival a Patricia Cornwall police procedural. Which is to say, what a deviously delicious tale.
Santa Fe Police detective Denise Aragon has her hands full with a corrupt judicial system and a mobster-style waste hauler, but still manages to find time for an FBI romance. You know she’s going to solve the case (erm, make that cases), but Scarantino throws enough twists into his plot to keep you guessing how. He also introduces readers to a seamier side of the City Different and pays so much homage to Blake’s Lotaburger that the chain ought to grant him a lifetime supply of green chile cheeseburgers. New Mexicans may remember the author as a prosecutor, defense lawyer, and investigative reporter—skills he puts to good use as a mystery writer. Now based in Washington, he promises more for our iron-willed detective, who first appeared in The Drum Within—a good starting point for those who relish their fictional mayhem in chronological order. —Kate Nelson