After watching the Winter Olympics this year and hearing over and over again of the athletes, “She lives and trains in Colorado,” I knew that when I arrived in the Centennial State I wanted to find a book steeped in ski culture, or that at least features a ski lodge.
The mid-December day seemed made for skiing: the sun glittered off pristine slopes, the sky extended endlessly in a cloudless periwinkle dome, a light breeze carried fresh, sweet air off the peaks, and five inches of new powder topped an eighty-five inch base. – Diane Mott Davidson
Tough Cookie by Diane Mott Davidson is not only set in a ski town, but the accidental investigator, Goldy Schulz, is also a caterer and personal chef. Sparkling snow and ice-capped gingersnaps? Yes please.
Tough Cookie, number 9 in the Goldy Bear culinary mystery series set in Aspen Meadow, Colorado, takes place mainly in kitchens, on ski-lift gondolas, on the set of a cooking show shot in a ski lodge bistro, and on the avalanche-prone slopes of Killdeer, Colorado. A quick and easy read, it’s got murder and menus, reprobates and recipes, and it had me drooling the whole time. Mystery lovers will appreciate that Tough Cookie is only one in a larger series of Goldy Bear mysteries – all mouth-watering, all suspenseful, and all set in Colorado.
With at least 17 titles, including Sticks and Scones, The Main Corpse, and the New York Times bestseller Prime Cut, I imagine the series would show Aspen Meadow throughout the seasons, not just on the snow slopes of December, and would make for plenty of armchair travelling to the Rocky Mountains – and kitchens – of Colorado.
I came to Island of the Blue Dolphins when I reached California, the fifth state on my literary tour of the United States. Because I am progressing through the states alphabetically, I arrived in California after spending several weeks in Arizona and Arkansas, and I was parched for a new experience. Island of the Blue Dolphins, with its gulls and sea spray, its abalone and kelp, was like a cool draft of water on a dry, dusty throat; it quenched my thirst.
I grew up on an island off the coast of Georgia (USA), and I am shocked that I never read this book as a child. Nearly every woman I know, when I mention the book, says “Oh my God, I LOVED that book when I was a little girl! I read it over and over again.” I admit that even as an adult I could read and reread. It is that wonderful.
Winner of the 1961 Newbery medal for children’s literature, The Island of the Blue Dolphins is the story of Karana, an 1800s native girl living with her people on an island off the California coast – the Island of the Blue Dolphins (San Nicolas Island, about 75 miles southwest of Los Angeles) – who comes to live alone on the island after a series of tragic events. The narrative is emotionally detached and the tragic events are not graphically described, so the book would not be too traumatic for children.
What I loved about this book is that the descriptions of Karana’s life on the island – in the 1800s, in a time before technology – are vivid and beautiful: I could hear the gulls and the crashing waves, I could smell the kelp and the sea air, I could taste the fish and the salt and the wind.
“Sweet odors came from the wild grasses in the ravines and from the sand plants on the dunes.”
“A fresh wind that smelled of kelp blew out of the northern sea.”
“I gathered gull eggs on the cliff and Ramo speared a string of small fish in one of the tide pools.”
“I knew it was spring because that morning at dawn the sky was filled with darting birds.”
“Far down, the sea ferns moved as though a breeze were blowing there.”
The Island of the Blue Dolphins was exactly what I needed after being landlocked in the dusty desert of Arizona and the cotton fields of Arkansas. I may have to buy a copy “for my children” to keep around the house.
From the author’s note: “The island called in this book the Island of the Blue Dolphins was first settled by Indians in about 2000 B.C, but it was not discovered by white men until 1602…The girl Robinson Crusoe whose story I have attempted to re-create actually lived alone upon this island from 1835 to 1853, and is known to history as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas.”
As a coastal person, I was uncomfortable reading Arizona. The dry cracked land, the absence of emerald-green, and the silence where dripping should be were disorienting to me. I think my soul might dry up and blow away if I were to move to the desert. But where I feel withered and desolate, the people who are native to the land find magic – the sky is so big that shamans walk among the stars, and the first summer rain is significant enough to signal the beginning of a new year.
Aside from The Bean Trees, the books I chose for Arizona were challenging for me. I don’t know if the landscape made my mouth too dry, or if the books I chose weren’t my kinds of books, or (and this is my hunch) if it’s because I read them in winter, when I would normally curl up with The Shipping News and cold snowy books, but I found myself wishing for something else, a different kind of place. A place of blues and greens, not of reds and browns. I will say, though, that what Arizona lacks in water, it makes up for in characters. The three books I selected from Arizona were filled with scrappy, no-nonsense folks for whom parched land, prickly plants, and flash floods cultivated a toughness that I don’t have, but I admire.
They also cultivated in me a hunger for Tex Mex food.
Novel: Half Broke Horses
Author: Jeannette Walls, born Phoenix, AZ
Setting: 1920s through 40s Arizona
Categories: Historical fiction
Half Broke Horses, set in Texas and Arizona, is a true life novel of Lily Casey Smith, author Jeannette Walls’s sassy, swaggering pioneer grandma. Fans of Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle will appreciate going deeper into the Walls family history with Half Broke Horses, which takes us back to the beginning, when Walls’s grandmother, Lily, broke horses on her family ranch as a girl, and as a young teen rode 500 miles, alone, on her horse, Patches, from Texas to Arizona to take a teaching job in the 1920s. Walls calls this a novel because it was necessary that she fill in details and recreate dialogue, but the voice and wild events, like Lily’s grand entrance in her ranch town’s premier of Gone With the Wind, to which she wore a dress she made from curtains, are authentic and amusing. Lily is spunky and resourceful, a pioneer woman, and I loved her sass:
“Don’t you ‘little lady’ me,” I said. “I break horses. I brand steers. I run a ranch with a couple dozen crazy cowboys on it, and I can beat them all in poker. I’ll be damned if some nincompoop is going to stand there and tell that I don’t have what it takes to fly that dinky heap of tin.” (Lily Casey Smith to a flight instructor who pooh-poohed her when she wanted to take flying lessons from him)
Half Broke Horses is filled with great lines like this, some that characterize Lily, as the one above, and others that characterize the land and the varmints who called it home:
As I sat by my little fire at night, the coyotes howled just like they always had, and the huge moon turned the desert silver.
Arizona, with its wide open spaces and no one peering over your shoulder, had always been a haven for folks who didn’t like the law or other busybodies to know what they were up to.
I didn’t think this was as compelling as The Glass Castle, but I appreciated Walls’s ability to paint the Arizona landscape, and sear me with the desert suns’ heat, and show me a woman with sand, whose grit ensured her survival in an unforgiving place.
Novel: La Maravilla
Author: Alfredo Véa, Jr., born 1952 near Phoenix, Arizona
Setting: 1950s-1960s, outside of Phoenix, AZ
Categories: Native American Fiction, Hispanic Fiction
Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s beyond the fizzled out end of Buckeye Road – beyond where asphalt turns to dirt after Buckeye Road has left Phoenix – La Maravilla is a novel of the displaced fringes who congregate along this sandy road in the Arizona desert: negritos and indios, prostitutes and transvestites, Arkies and Okies, and Beto, a young boy who lives with his Mexican healer grandmother and his Yaqui Indian grandfather. Beto’s mother has abandoned him there in her quest for a shiny, new, dust-free life in California. Beto’s home at the end of Buckeye Road and his Mestizo-Yaqui-Filipino-American heritage reflect the author’s own background: Alfredo Véa, Jr., an American author with Mexican, Native American, and Filipino heritage grew up with his grandparents in the Buckeye barrio outside of Phoenix, just as Beto does.
Peppered with Spanish and Yaqui phrases; brimming with frijoles, burritos, and an elaborate Mexican fiesta complete with sixty pounds of pork and beef that simmered all morning “with fifty cloves of garlic, ten chopped onions, cups of crushed comino and a handful of cilantro;” and populated with a Catholic Mexican curandera (healer), the Mighty Clouds of Joy Negro Church, and Huichol, Yaqui, and Tarahumara Indians who go out into the desert to fly on spirit journeys, and eat peyote, and initiate Beto into these ways as part of his manhood ceremony, La Maravilla serves a rich, flavorful, satisfying banquete of Arizona culture:
The woman in black looked up into the high, endless sky. The skin of the hand that shaded her eyes was browned and softened by the tannins of her life.
Neither Manuel nor Josephina was the same person in their different languages.
The Arkies were kind of like Mexicans, the boy felt; they could suffer and do hard work and they always fed everybody’s kids.
Ghosts are like tumbleweeds. No one pays attention to the plant when it’s green. No one even knows what it’s called. But when it’s dead it receives a name and people who see the weeds rolling across open fields are suddenly stricken with loneliness.
I wish I could mourn for him like those crazy Mexicanos. The bake death and eat it. They roll it in sugar and put it on sticks for the children to lick at.
I admit that there were long portions of the book that dragged for me; I admit that were I not reading this for my Andrea Reads America project, I might have abandoned the book; and I admit there were many times when I wondered where Véa was going with this, and why he inserted this scene and that character. I’m still not sure I know, and I think the book could have been distilled for more potency, but like many books that I’m not sure I like when I’m struggling through them, my mind has returned many times to La Maravilla. I loved Véa’s use of Latino and Yaqui words, how they gave the narrative an authentic feel for being among the characters. Like Two Old Women, the other book I’ve read so far by a Native American author (Alaska), La Maravilla is filled with wisdom, spirituality, and a deep respect for elders, family and sticking together as a community.
Novel: The Bean Trees
Author: Barbara Kingsolver, lived 20 years of adult life in Tucson, AZ
Setting: late 1970s Tucson, Arizona
Categories: Fiction, American Fiction
Set in 1970s Tucson, Arizona, The Bean Trees is the story of Taylor Greer, a plucky, lovable twenty-something who drives away from her rural, dead-end Kentucky home town in her ’55 Volkswagen bug with “no windows to speak of, and no back seat and no starter.” She leaves Pittman County, where folks “had kids just about as fast as they could fall down the well and drown,” and heads west where, at a pit stop somewhere in Oklahoma, a small Cherokee child is deposited in the front seat of her car by a native woman – the child’s aunt – who tells Taylor to the child away from here. The old woman will not take no for an answer as she turns and walks away to face the child’s father – and abuser.
Like so many of Kingsolver’s works, The Bean Trees is a gratifyingly readable book; I think I finished it in three or four nights. Filled with funny Kentucky colloquialisms and the dry desert air of Tucson, The Bean Trees can feel light in its page-turning readability, but flowing beneath that lively tone are undercurrents of weighty issues. True to form, Kingsolver weaves in the strong pulse of nature,
At three o’clock in the afternoon all the cicadas stopped buzzing at once. They left such an emptiness in the air it hurt your ears. Around four o’clock we heard thunder.
If you looked closely you could see that in some places the rain didn’t make it all the way to the ground. Three-quarters of the way down from the sky it just vanished into the dry air.
Everything alive had thorns.
and heart wrenching themes of social justice:
Mrs. Parsons muttered that she thought this was a disgrace. “Before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America… They ought to stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs.
When people run for their lives they frequently neglect to bring along their file cabinets of evidence.
Set in a border state and dealing with issues of immigration and human cooperation, The Bean Trees is a story of friendship, and heart, and symbiosis. It is a story of plants and people thriving in poor soil and thorny country, not because they are tough, or better adapted, or because they are strong enough to do it alone. They survive because they open themselves to being helped, and to helping each other out.
For Further Reading in Arizona
Books that have been recommended to me but I have not yet read: Concrete Desert by Jon Talton Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko Mojave Crossing by Louis L’Amour Goats by Mark Jude Poirier Bisbee/17 by Robert Houston The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea (nonfiction) Crossers by Philip Caputo
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.