Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Milagro Beanfield War

The Milagro Beanfield War, by John Nichols, is an engaging and fun read. The eccentric characters are remarkably well-drawn and come to life in this first installment of Nichols' New Mexico Trilogy. It really made me curious about his other work, especially since the author admits that he's rather sick of Milagro and regrets being known for this particular book, not that he's looking a gift horse in the mouth, or anything.

The author's afterward makes it obvious that he's an intriguing character himself! Nichols can be a bit long-winded in parts, while he's having too much fun with his descriptions and metaphors, but that's part of the comedy of the book. At times, he probably felt the wind rushing by the words as he wrote, as strong as the wind of Pacheco's pig. Now, that's an eccentric character: Pancheco, the old man who is so lonely that his 300 pound sow just happens to keep getting loose so that he has to run after it, perchance to have a conversation with whomever the pig is terrorizing at the moment. This is funny stuff.

But then, it also deals with topics that are not funny at all. For instance, this story takes place in the early 1970's, yet these people are still speaking most Spanish, living in shocking poverty, and are being abused by the more affluent populations around them. At the center of this novel is a man named Joe (or Jose) Mondragon, who has made the random decision to irrigate his father's old beanfield, even though he no longer has irrigation rights for this little (less than one acre) piece of land. This one act is more symbolic and much more threatening than Joe ever imagined. His people were once subsistance farmers with a rich cultural heritage, but slowly lost water rights to the bigger interests around them and were unable to fight back out of ignorance; the older generations were illiterate and certainly had no awareness of politics. Meanwhile, this little town is losing many of its young men forever in Vietnam, a most cruel irony.

Milagro is a fictional town, but Nichols based this novel very much on what was happening at the time around Taos, New Mexico. The novel was probably inspired by anger, but it doesn't sound belligerant. And the characters may seem ridiculous at times, but they are treated lovingly. Even though I think Joe Mondragon is a bit of a jerk, I also think he's a good guy, underneath that. Charley Bloom, Mondragon's scared and ambivalent lawyer, has lots of warts and issues, but I liked him, anyway. (He should get counseling, though.) And I'm afraid that the author himself might have been the model for Bloom. (I hope he feels better.)

There was so much I had in my mind to say about this book, but it would be too much. Suffice it to say, this is a good, different, and intriguing read. Thumbs up!

And yes, we had a wonderful time on vacation. It's really a very relaxing place, and it's rough, being back! But don't cry for me, I'll be okay.


Doug said...

Perfect read for your vacation and I knew if I kept reading your reviews long enough, you'd get to something I read. It's funny that Nichols would be tired of being associated with this book, although I guess I understand. I thought this was a great book so I read the rest of the trilogy and intended to read more afterwards, but never thought he did anywhere near as well again.

By the way, during my friend Jan's long illness he reminded me of...is it Onofre Martinez, the old man who had malady after malady and whose son realizes will outlive him.

There actually are a lot communities in the midwest and southwest where Mexican Spanish is still or again the first language by the way.

Welcome home!

TLP said...

Great review as always. This book has been on my radar forever. I actually thought that maybe I had read it at some point, but it doesn't sound familiar when I read your review.

(The last time we were in Long Beach CA, we were the ones who didn't speak the language.)

actonbell said...

Doug, Onofre Martinez was the one who lost his arm--he claimed butterflies ate it, but we never hear the truth. This invisible arm was blamed for lots of stuff. Onofre's arm became a superstitious thing.

The old guy who wouldn't die was Amarante Cordova. I thought that was pretty funny.

I thought it was very good, too, and I'm not surprised that it's the best of the trilogy. And thanks, I suppose it's good to be back.

Mom, you might have seen the movie. I know I did, but I didn't recognize much while I was reading the book.

TLP said...

You are right!!! I did see the movie.

Doug said...

If I remember the movie, I think some of the old men were combined in one, weren't they?

Mama Zen said...

This sounds interesting!

Nessa said...

I definitely will be looking for this. Sounds interesting.

actonbell said...

I'd like to see the movie again. There are so many characters that surely, some of them would have to be combined. But--I just don't remember at all.

tsduff said...

Great review - makes me want to read it. I saw the movie several times, and would watch it again if given the opportunity.

I am Sparticus. said...

To read the trilogy is a great read, beautiful sad and angering as it is funny. I read them many years ago and still some of my favorite reads. Big bowl of chips some guacamole hot sauce and a hammock and the books, fire for effect.