Tidewater Review - August 2010


The Ghost of Milagro Creek
Anne Stinson

The Ghost of Milagro Creek by Melanie Sumner. Algonquin of Chapel Hill. 258 pp. $13.95.
The great American Southwest is the setting for this new novel, a western without a single cowboy or a shot fired in anger. Instead, the reader becomes an intimate partner with residents in the hard desert world near Taos, New Mexico. Prospects for a happy life seem to be slim to none.
The book’s structure is as aimless and sporadic as the events in the lives of the main characters, mostly Native Americans who live hardscrabble lives dominated by meager education, no jobs and lots of alcohol. The tug between the old ways of the ancestors and the modern ways of their gringo neighbors breeds ever-present tensions.
One person who limns this disconnect vividly is the Abuela, the Spanish word for Grandmother. She embodies the fear and loathing of white people, with good reason. As a child she was separated from her parents and taken to a missionary school where children were punished for speaking their own languages and had their hair cut to outlaw the braids of their tribes. They were forbidden to pray to their own gods, and forced to learn to worship the gringo god with his prayers and hymns.
Abuela’s fervent prayer every day was for the school to burn to the ground. As soon as she was old enough to rejoin her tribe, she reverted to the old ways. Learning from an elder in the tribe, she studied to become a curandera, a shaman sort of spirit-doctor, the practitioner of semi-magical cures. She also took care of her grandson and his best friend, Tomas. The grandson’s name is Mister.
Both boys are in their mid-teens, both in school and best buddies with a girl. She moves to the town from Santa Fe in the middle of the school year, a gringo named Raquel who prefers to be called Rocky. Like the boys, Rocky is the neglected child of an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Both of the boys fall in love with her.
And what’s the ghost reference in the title? Abuela buried Mister up to his neck in the dust at the top of an arid cliff when he was a child. She watched over him until the sun set. He had lost his soul, his very identity, she thought, and the burial was the only way for him to be reborn. After the ceremony she bathed him in the water under the Milagro Creek Bridge, the scene of much of the action in the story. According to Abuela’s beliefs, everyone has a twin, and now Mister’s ghost-twin may be there beneath the bridge.
Now the boys are grown and are juniors in high school. Their friendship is so close they’re often mistaken for brothers. Both drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes under the bridge after school, and Tomas drops out. Mister is unable to persuade him to stay and graduate – neither is Rocky.
The boys have made a childhood pact, born out of their bleak prospects for the future. They have promised each other that they will simultaneously shoot each other on an agreed date.
They keep the pact, and one survives to reunite with Rocky and, like Huck Finn, “head out for the territory.” It would be unfair to divulge the outcome of this tale of blighted love and conflicted identity of these Native Americans’ attempts to adapt to their plight.
Sumner has created a lyrical dream of equal parts of hope and tragedy. Readers who despair at contemporary frustration at the poverty, alcoholism, bad nutrition and disease on today’s reservations would do well to ponder the portrait Sumner paints of a priest assigned to guide the spiritual welfare of this flock. It’s a small vignette in the text recounting Abuela’s death, but it profoundly illuminates the point of the story.
The mixture of magic and realism is not all grim, to be sure. It takes very little familiarity with Spanish vocabulary to laugh out loud at the “Spanglish” words invented through the bastard offspring of both parents.
In all, the story has the unrelenting heat of the desert in mid-day and the chilling frost of sundown in the high mountains. It hangs in the mind like puzzles with no solutions. The Ghost of Milagro Creek is an extraordinary book.

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson. Algonquin Books. 276 pp. $23.95.
Paul feels like a loser. He lives alone in Massachusetts, is middle-aged, recently divorced, has a bit of a drinking problem and more than a touch of depression. His father in Minnesota has just had a stroke while shoveling snow. Paul feels guilty because he didn’t follow through with plans to buy the best snow blower for a Christmas gift for the old man. To make things worse, Paul’s new girlfriend is also dating another man. He has only one real friend in the world – she’s blond, has long legs and soulful eyes. She only wets herself once in a while. Her name is Stella. She is his dog.
Like all dogs, Stella assumes Paul is dead if he isn’t at home with her. Other than that, she’s a font of good advice and common sense. Man and dog are such good friends that they have frequent conversations – well, more accurately, they communicate perfectly well.
The dog/man friendship sets the fey tone of the novel from page one to its bittersweet end. The light touch, in spite of Paul’s troubles, is perfectly in keeping with his line of work. He’s a writer who cranks out popular books in the series “...For Morons.” It pays well, but is hardly distinguished literature or a matter of pride.
So how can a book about a sad sack be as refreshing and fun to read as this one? Indeed, there’s not a single bad guy in the whole cast of characters. Paul’s drinking buddies are an aimless bunch, but they’re not rowdy or evil-doers. His family is admirable – a pleasant married sister who’s very fond of Paul, an older brother who’s Paul’s polar opposite, financially successful and savvy compared to Paul’s slapdash attitude toward money. The parents couldn’t be nicer, only wanting happiness for their children.
Paul holds no grudges against his ex-wife, who turns up to comfort him when Stella, the dog they both love, succumbs to the frailties of old age. The chapter Nelson writes about the final visit to the veterinarian is wrenching for any reader who has had to put down a beloved pet.
Between plane rides to visit his paralyzed father, Paul e-mails Dad often and falls into the habit of sharing his hopes and fears. His dad is unable to speak or write, but can only respond with Yes or No. Damage from the stroke has affected the old man’s comprehension and at first he confuses his son, Paul, with his late father, also named Paul.
By now, the reader feels confident that Dad will recover – perhaps very slowly, but the family will mend old hurts and be closer than ever. His dad inspires Paul to take better care of himself, to begin a regimen of exercise and give up alcohol.
No surprises here – his new girlfriend sheds her other beau, the future is bright and everybody lives happily ever after.
It’s not easy to write an upbeat tale without treacle, but Nelson has done it splendidly. And thanks, too, for the best and wisest dog since Ol’ Yeller. Stella, it was a delight to meet you.
Readers will swallow this book whole and love the whole kit and kaboodle.