July 2012 reissue of 1985 release, American Historical Romance (17th C. Southwest)
Camel Press, $14.95, 284 pages, Amazon ASIN 160381891X
Here's something you may not know about Carla Kelly: She has a BA in Latin American History and an MA in Indian Wars history. Which makes her pretty much the perfect person to write this book; it is about an Indian War which takes place in 17th Century New Mexico. But it is more than that, it is about two people falling in love during an incredibly turbulent and dangerous time.
You know that saying "If I didn't have bad luck I'd have no luck at all"? That saying could pretty much sum up the last several years of the life of Maria Espinoza. Her father lost the family fortune. Then her family died in the cholera epidemic which swept through Mexico City in 1679. She finds herself working as a servant in a wagon train heading to Santa Fe, where she has a sister whom she has not seen in over a decade. Maria is hoping her sister will take her in. The hoped for reunion is delayed when the caravan is attacked by Apaches. Maria is spared only because she had fallen asleep in a small grove of trees where she could not be seen. The rest of their small group is murdered before her eyes. When the Apache finally leave, Maria does not know how she will survive. Is she to cross the remaining desert on foot? Then salvation arrives when a small band of ranchers comes to check on the caravan.
Diego Masferrer is the man who rescues Maria. In this frightened yet valiant girl he sees a kindred spirit. When her sister rejects her, claiming to be too poor to take on another mouth to feed, he accepts Maria into his own household. Life at the hacienda is not easy, for there is much work to be done. But Maria is happy to be both servant and friend in this kind place. She grows close to Diego's sisters Erlinda, Luz, and Catarina. She also grows close to Cristobal, their half-brother. The son of a Tewa servant and Diego's father, Cristobal is beloved but also mistrusted. He has a tough time facing his own demons knowing that as an Indian he can not own property and must serve on the ranchero that his brother owns.
For her part, Maria is troubled by what is happening in New Mexico. Diego refers to his workers as "my" Indians, but the Council of the Indies put an end to the days of Indian allotment. She is uneasy that in spite of the laws of the church and government the people of New Mexico insist on using the Tewa as slave labor and demand a tribute from them. She is not the only one displeased with this. It is clear that there is growing unrest among the Tewa servants that the Masferrer family consider their own. However, Diego's kindness in all other areas wins her over and she finds herself slowly falling in love with him. She knows it can never amount to anything - that he must marry within his own class to a woman of wealth - but she can not control where her heart goes. This disappoints not only herself but Cristobal, who has taken her gestures of friendship and returned them with love. Will she choose the man who cares for her? Or will she hope against the odds for the man she cares for?
The star of this novel is the author's amazing gift of providing rich, detailed history. We get to know just what kind of work it took to survive in this harsh environment, how the people lived their every day lives, the politics and emotions of the time. Diego has a very Catholic household and we see something of that throughout the novel. The look at history here is also very hard. The wars between the Spaniards and Indians were brutal and that is depicted in all its gory detail. Towards the end of the book some of the scenes are shocking. While I didn't enjoy reading them, I appreciated how the author wove what actually happened into her tale.
Maria is an interesting character. She has been forged into steel by the recent events of her life and it shows. She has courage and strength enough for ten women. She also has a strong moral compass and a forgiving heart. She very much wants to heal the rift that has come up between Cristobal and Diego, yet when she discovers it goes much deeper than their mutual attraction to her she lets it go because she has wisdom and temperance to match her kindness. This all makes sense given what she has been through the last few years.
Diego is a fantastically drawn character. On the one hand, we see in him all the things that make conquerors unsympathetic. He believes strongly he has a right to the land he has taken from the Indians and a right to their service, regardless of the law. He is hot headed, stubborn, autocratic, and proud. Yet he is also generous, fair, and wonderful with his family. He treats Cristobal as family and welcomes Maria into the fold as well. He has a big heart and is an incredibly hard worker. I think he is an excellent representation of the best his time has to offer.
That is something I should perhaps mention about both characters. Neither of them are 21st century people sent to the past but are in fact people of that time. All of the characters seem very realistic to me for the time and place in which they reside. Between the strong portrayal of the Catholic faith, the lovely use of the Spanish language periodically and the picture painted of the customs, traditions and beliefs of the people, we get a very clear image of a Spanish New Mexico.
Cristobal, the third part of the love triangle, is harder to get to know. We see him only in between tantrums. The brothers had once been close but their father's death and Diego's inheritance of everything has caused a rift between them. Diego does not treat Cristobal badly, but the inequality in their situation eats at the Tewa man. He is torn between care for the people who have been family and loyalty to the people whose fate he is forced to share by law. His love for Maria is an anguish as well, since she is a woman of the conqueror's race.
Mentioned in all the advertising blurbs for the book is the fact that Maria is a saint maker. Essentially this means that she learns to make statues of the saints for household use. Since there are thousands of Catholic saints, this is a job in itself. Part of the book is devoted to Maria learning to find the saint hidden within a piece of wood and bringing it to life. For some reason, this portion of the book simply didn't capture my interest. Emiliano, her teacher, is a fascinating character, but the whole practice of saint making drew away from the portions of the book that intrigued me.
I would recommend this book on the basis of its unique use of history alone. The fact that is superbly written and researched makes it that much more of a treasure.
-- Maggie Boyd
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