Andrea Reads America: Arizona

Andrea Reads America Arizona book map
Andrea Reads America: Arizona

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.

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls book coverNovel: 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.

La Maravilla by Alfredo Vea, Jr book coverNovel: 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.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver book coverNovel: 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

This was originally published January 20, 2014 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

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

Andrea Reads America: Alaska

Andrea Reads America Alaska book map
Andrea Reads America: Alaska

I have to tell you, I was really excited when I realized my reading tour of the US would take me to Alaska in winter. I love cozying up with icy books when it is cold outside – I reread The Shipping News nearly every winter – and Alaska literature has not disappointed. I’ve gone back and forth between shivering, swearing “I’m reading a warm book after this!” and succumbing to the wild brutality of Alaskan winter, my thirst for its realness and its close-to-the-earthness unquenchable. Reading books populated with marten and wolverine, bear and fox, glaciers and tundra, I’m learning a new vocabulary: breakup (aka Spring, when the ice breaks up and avalanches downstream), ptarmigan (grouse), and babiche (rawhide strips used for cording, as in making snowshoes). I am scribbling descriptions of ice and snow and the piercing cold because the frosty words paint pictures of a place that is exotic, full of a wonder and wildness I will never experience here in Virginia.

While my Alabama reads dealt with social themes – racism, community, and doing the right thing – my Alaska reads contend with themes of wilderness, survival, legend, and the strong pull of the natural world. The landscape is as much a character in each book as the humans are, and I was pleased to find books set not only in isolation in the far north of Alaska and inland on a homestead, but also one set in more populated areas, on the raw coast. I’m a sucker for coasts.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: The Snow Child
Author: Eowyn Ivey, raised in Alaska
Setting: 1920s Alaska homestead
Categories: Literary fiction, Pulitzer Prize finalist

I didn’t think I liked magical realism, but it turns out I just hadn’t found the right book to pull me in, ground me in a reality, then sprinkle magic in a way that is wondrous and enchanting, and leaves you puzzling throughout – is it magic or is it real?  The Snow Child was this book for me.

Set in the wilderness of 1920s interior Alaska on the Wolverine River, The Snow Child is the story of a aging couple who have moved west from Pennsylvania to homestead in Alaska in an effort to escape the emptiness left by their stillborn child. A two hour horse ride to the nearest “town” and then a train ride away from Anchorage, Mabel and Jack become isolated even from each other, grieving while they labor separately to make workable land from wilderness. One night, they succumb to the magic of a snowfall, and in laughter and joy, they build a child from snow. The next morning, the snow figure is gone, and a wildling girl appears in the forest.

The Snow Child chronicles the growing affection between Faina (the wildling) and the elderly couple, who over the years grow to think of her as their own, though she comes and goes without notice, and though they live with opposing stories of her flesh-and-blood father who Jack buried and the idea that Faina is a snow maiden of their creation, as Mabel read about in a Russian Fairy Tale.  A tale that never ends well.

The magic in this book isn’t just the obvious fairy tale quality of it.  The magic is in the crystalline descriptions of Alaska in winter.  Author Eowyn Ivey may not be Eskimo, but I would argue she has a thousand words for snow.  Her descriptions are like snowflakes on the tongue – delicate, feathery crystals that sting in their loveliness:

“The December days had a certain luminosity and sparkle, like frost on bare branches, alight in the morning just before it melts.”

“Dawn broke silver over the snowdrifts and spruce trees.”

“The child was dusted in crystals of ice, as if she had just walked through a snowstorm or spent a brilliantly cold night outdoors.”

“The cranberries were tiny red rubies against the white snow.”

“Around the curve the valley opened up, and in the distance spires of blue ice glowed.”

This is a biting and beautiful book of love: love for neighbors, of husband and wife, for children, and love for the wild pull of the land, the forest, the snow, and the wilderness. It is one I will come back to when I want the magic of winter.

For more posts about The Snow Child, please see It was November, and I was afraid.

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival by Velma Wallis book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival
Author: Velma Wallis, Athabascan Indian, born 1960 in a remote village near Fort Yukon, AK
Setting: The tundra of northeastern Alaska
Categories: Native American literature

Two Old Women, a tale of Athabascan Indians written by Velma Wallis, a native Athabascan author, takes place north of the Arctic Circle in the interior of Alaska. It tells a tribal legend passed orally to Wallis by her mother, of two elders who were abandoned one lean and brutal winter by their tribe.

“That day the women went back in time to recall the skills and knowledge they had been taught from early childhood. They began by making snowshoes.”

At the time they were abandoned, the old women depended on the youth of the tribe to care for them. Because of this dependence, with The People on the brink of starvation, the Chief determined the women were holding the tribe back, threatening the survival of the many for the demands of the few, and he left them to die, old, crippled, and alone on the open tundra. The two women could barely walk, even with canes, when they were left behind, but the taste for survival was sharp in their mouths, and they gathered their strength and elder-wisdom to stay alive. They made snowshoes from babiche a grandson had left them, and used the shoes to trek to a safe winter-over spot; they caught rabbits in snares; they slept in snow pits they dug with gnarled hands and lined with spruce boughs for bedding.

What I love about this story, aside from a portrayal of the very real struggle for survival for indiginous people living without permanant shelter – nomads north of the Arctic Circle – was the focus it places on elders. The elders in our communities have seen much more than the youth have. They know more, they have lived more, they are wiser. It is easy for young ones, in their arrogance and vigor, to toss the old aside, thinking they are outdated, their knowledge obsolete, their presence a hindrance holding the young ones back rather than a source of wisdom that could propel them forward. Wisdom that could nourish and equip them for the unknown that lies ahead.

I imagine this story would be powerful as an audiobook, told with native Athabaskan inflection and in its traditional, oral story form.

The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: The Woman Who Married a Bear: An Alaskan Mystery
Author: John Straley, resident of Sitka, Alaska since 1977
Setting: contemporary Sitka, Alaska
Categories: Mystery, crime fiction

How can I resist a novel that leads with a haiku?

My head is a cup left out
on a stormy autumn night;
half full of water, and a spider.

The fact is, I can’t. Especially when the novel is a murder mystery set in October in the port town of Sitka, off the raw southeastern coast of Alaska. Unlike the previous Alaska books I read, which were set in isolation in the interior of the state, Staley’s novel portrays peopled coastal regions in Alaska: cities with pubs and coffee shops, police departments and wharfs. Eskimos and other natives populate scenes in diners, bars, and airplanes, always reminding the reader you’re in Alaska.

Since it’s a mystery novel, I won’t go too much into the plot, except that it involves a murder (duh), Tinglit Indian legend, and Cecil Young, an alcoholic private investigator with a penchant for poetic thought

“Her skin was as white as a sea anemone, and as soft as the pool of warm air you pass through while rowing across the bay.”

and a knack for nailing scenes

“As the bottle got lighter our gestures became wilder, our eyes widened and we imagined were were expanding into our own stories.”

“The landscape seemed to press in and make Juneau seem like a smaller, less sophisticated town than it really was.”

“The water boiled with little silvery fish dense on the surface like a trillion dollars in quarters spilling onto a sidewalk… There was a massive exploding breath and the damp smell of fish and tideflat… Whale. Humpback whale, feeding on herring.”

I read this as winter descended on Blacksburg, Virginia, and it was a perfect curl-up-on-the-couch cozy mystery read. The language in this book is beautiful, enough so that I was intrigued by a mystery writer who wrote so poetically, and I discovered that Straley has studied poetry and was the Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2006 to 2008.

The Woman Who Married a Bear is the first in a series of Cecil Young mysteries.

For further reading in Alaska

Books I’ve read and recommend:
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner (For more on Ordinary Wolves, please see Favorite Quotes from Alaska Literature or click the title for my Goodreads review.)
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (nonfiction)

Books that have been recommended to me but I have not yet read:
The Raven’s Gift by Don Reardon
Two in the Far North by Margaret E. and Olaus Johan Murie (nonfiction)
Drop City by T.C. Boyle
The Only Kayak by Kim Heacox (nonfiction)
Journey to a Dream by Mary Lovel (nonfiction)
My Name is Not Easy by Debbie Dahl Edwardson
Don’t Use a Chainsaw in the Kitchen by Rosalyn Stowell

In the summer of 2013, my parents packed up their RV and took the adventure of their lifetime: the two of them and their yellow lab, Blondie, drove from Georgia to Alaska and back again. Mom wrote and photographed their journey on her blog, Wandering Dawgs.

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