I set a dangerous precedent by reading six books in California instead of only three. When I arrived in Colorado on my reading tour I started out with three books. Then I read four. Then five. It’s a good thing I didn’t set a time limit for myself to finish this project; it felt good to read all those books, and I have a feeling it won’t be the last time I over-read a state.
Going into the Centennial State*, the only thing I knew about Colorado was the Rocky Mountains and skiing. After reading five books, I’ve seen so many facets of Colorado I don’t know which three to pick to best represent the state. Tough Cookie highlighted the ski-lodge culture, Little Miss Strange showed Denver in the tumult of the 1960s and 70s, Prayers For Sale takes the reader to the gold-mining days of Breckenridge, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz grants entrée into modern Denver Chicano culture, and Plainsong takes us to the open plains of Colorado – plains I didn’t even know existed in Colorado until I read Haruf’s beautiful book.
To make narrowing the list less painful, I chose the three titles I felt best represented Colorado as character, and then wrote about Little Miss Strange and Tough Cookie separately. If you are interested in reading Colorado beyond the books listed below, please see Sarajean Henry is my hero (Little Miss Strange) and Ski lodges, killers, and cookies: a Colorado win (Tough Cookie). Otherwise, enjoy the swagger of Chicano Denver, the brittle cold of gold-mining Breckenridge, and the sweeping plains east of the Rockies.
*Colorado became a state in 1876, 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and so it has been nicknamed The Centennial State.
Novel: Prayers for Sale
Author: Sandra Dallas, lives Denver, Colorado
Setting: 1930s Middle Swan (Breckenridge), Colorado
Categories: Historical Fiction
Set in Middle Swan on The Devil’s Backbone, the high ridge where Breckenridge perches in Summit County, Colorado, Prayers for Sale takes place during the mining boom of the late 1930s. Middle Swan, loosely based on the geography and history of Breckenridge, is a gold dredge town, where the gold boats screech and clatter all day long, with silence being a torment rather than a relief because quiet means the dredge has stopped. And the dredge stopping often heralds a grisly death.
Prayers for Sale is stories within a story. The widow Hennie Comfort, an 86-year-old mountain woman, imparts town tales to newcomer Nit Spindle, a young woman who travelled to Colorado from Kentucky to start a life with her new husband. Both women have lost babies, both women hail from the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky, and both women seek companionship in the high altitudes where it can snow any month of the year, and where they never know if the men will come back after a day on the gold dredge.
Sandra Dallas shows the colorful nature of a gold mining town – the hookhouse, the social statuses, the differences between mining and dredging, the danger, the strength of the women, and my favorite, the mining jargon that makes its way into everyday speech: “Tap ‘er light” to say take it easy and “deep enough” to say it’s time to stop. Hennie’s storytelling takes place over quilt piecing, raspberrying, cooking, and baby birthing, and her relationship with Nit explores the beauty of women’s friendships. Quilters will enjoy the well-researched quilting scenes and storytellers will appreciate Hennie’s penchant for spinning a good yarn.
Author: Kent Haruf, born Pueblo, Colorado
Setting: 1980s(?) Holt, Colorado
Categories: Literary Fiction, National Book Award Finalist
Set on the high plains east of Denver, Colorado, in an unspecified decade when teachers used ditto machines, smoked in the teachers’ lounge, and when people used payphones, Plainsong is a quiet, elegant book. Told through the intersecting stories of seven characters – Guthrie, a highschool teacher whose depressed wife has left him and their two boys; the two boys (10 and 9); a widowed teacher Guthrie’s age; a pregnant teen; and the McPheron brothers, two balding bachelors who know no other life but their insular cattle ranch – Plainsong pieces together a community of what many would consider broken or half-formed people. None have partners, either because they lost their mate or they never had one, and none have an intact parent-set.
Yet solitude is not their story. Their stories are the way they navigate life through their own solidity – Guthrie standing up to a bully family whose jock son is failing Guthrie’s class; Guthrie’s boys taking responsibility for their paper route, watching high schoolers have sex, baking cookies with a housebound newspaper customer, helping herd cattle; Maggie helping the pregnant teen find shelter and asserting herself romantically; the 17-year old’s choices about her pregnancy; and the old bachelor brothers changing everything they know late in life, after decades of sameness – and through their coming together as community.
In addition to expertly weaving these stories together, Haruf’s treatment of the plains setting is gorgeous. It is both gentle and harsh, with the lives of Colorado ranch animals often paralleling and informing the human stories. This book was eloquent, telling the story of plain, ordinary people and the grace inherent in them. It was optimistic in a quiet, down-to-earth, unsentimental way that made me believe in the goodness of humanity.
Novel: The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz
Author: Manuel Ramos, born Florence, Colorado
Setting: 1990s Denver, Colorado
Categories: Mystery, Crime Drama, Latino/Chicano Fiction
Set in the late 1980s or early 1990s in Denver, Colorado, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz reaches back through time, via Chicano lawyer Luis Móntez, to a night 20 years prior when an ambitious revolutionary, Rocky Ruiz, was gunned down by men in white hoods.
Packed with machismo, mystery, raucous courtroom scenes, and adulation of a young Chicana lawyer, the novel take the reader into an old story of a Chicano brotherhood that is 20 years gone at the beginning of the novel. Móntez and his former revolutionary brothers are no longer young and are established men in their Denver community: an attorney, a judge, a proprietor of an anti-gang, anti-drug community center. Yet when they begin to receive threatening phone calls, Rocky’s traumatizing death, which they’ve spent the past 20 years trying to forget, rushes back to them.
Author Manuel Ramos infuses the text with Chicano style, intermingling Spanish and English, and even clarifying the term Chicano** (Mexican-American), which Móntez calls himself, but his father Jesús rolls his eyes at:
Chicano was a derogatory word as far as [Jesús] was concerned. “If you want to be called ‘boy Mexican,’ that’s up to you, boy.” What made him really laugh was that most of my comrades in the movement did not speak Spanish.
The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz is a fast, fun, crime drama with a different character set than my usual mystery sleuths, which I admit, are pudgy, bumbling white women named, oh, Agatha Raisin, or dapper Englishmen named Richard Jury. Author Manuel Ramos adds a new voice to the crime drama genre, and as
**The best consensus I can find on the differences between the terms Hispanic, Latino, and Chicano are as follows. The terms describe heritage – “regions of origin” – not race:
- Hispanic describes persons hailing from Spanish-speaking countries (i.e. not Brazil, which speaks Portuguese)
- Latino describes persons of Latin-American heritage (including Brazil)
- Chicano describes persons of Mexican heritage living in the United States. Chicano is sometimes seen as derogatory, as Jesus demonstrates in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, though the author Manuel Ramos claims the term for his lead character and has himself taught Chicano Literature at the University level.
For Further Reading in Colorado
Books I have read and can recommend
Little Miss Strange by Joanne Rose
Tough Cookie by Diane Mott Davidson
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbow
The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.