Well, I have to say I’m having a hard time slogging through The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols (1974). I think I might have had an easier time if I hadn’t read So Far From God by Ana Castillo so recently. In many ways they are similar, and both do a great job of really showing us the people of New Mexico–the quirkiness, the Spanish language, the cultural influences of Mexico (and Spain), the no-nonsense farm life. Of the two, I preferred the religious and curandera point of view of So Far From God, even though I am anything but religious and am sometimes really put off by that. But I think the water rights and small subsistence farmer view is important to the story of New Mexico (and all of the southwest), so both are great for my challenge. And, honestly, I am enjoying Milagro, but it’s just going very slowly!
One of the parts of So Far From God that I loved was the section where Sofi becomes “la mayor of Tome.” I love the empowerment of the town turning its fortunes around, finding a purpose, and working together. I also love that the model mentioned in the book–“a sheep-grazing wool-weaving enterprise, … modeled after the one started by the group up north that had also saved its community from destitution”–is a real-life model, Ganados del Valle and Tierra Wools, located along the high road from Santa Fe to Taos (and passing through the area where The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols (and Robert Redford’s 1988 film version) is set). I keep hoping that Milagro is going to turn into this kind of cooperative…, but somehow I doubt it.
One aspect that I’m really enjoying from The Milagro Beanfield War is the story of Herbie Goldfarb, the conscientious objector who avoids being sent to Vietnam by becoming a VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) member. I love the scenes where he has to confront the violence inherent in the lives of small subsistence farmers–killing the roosters, dealing with vermin (snakes, ants, rutting dogs, etc.), gelding various animals–to the point where he wonders if he would have been better off in Vietnam and if he’ll still have shell shock or battle fatigue by the time his Tour of Duty in New Mexico is done! I was somewhat disappointed that his volunteer role is really downplayed, and his service seems to make little difference in the lives of the people of Milagro, however, I also have to admit that this is similar to what one of my friends observed during her Peace Corps service in Guyana in South America in the late 1990s or early 2000s. One of the other Volunteers, Stephanie (with whom Herbie has a short-lived romance), seems to be making more of a difference, but little information is given about it.
Of course, as many readers will already know, Robert Redford made a movie adaptation of this book (in 1988). And it, like the book itself, has become a bit of a cult classic. Honestly, I had much the same reaction to the movie that I’ve been having to the book: I just plowed along, hoping it was going somewhere, vaguely enjoying it, but glad when it was over.
In his article about both the novel and the movie, entitled, “Night of the Living Beanfield,” John Nichols writes, “The novel, like anyone who has ever tried to explain New Mexico to an outsider, tends to ramble. Like our state, the novel is big, it is bold, and it is mostly empty spaces.” Apparently, the movie-making process was rather detrimental to Nichols’ health and sanity, and he was sure he was going to be lynched by the time Hollywood got through with it (although he does admit in the end that the movie was, “compassionate, humorous, good-hearted, and decent”).
The New York Times interviewed me and asked what the film was about. I said, “It’s about class struggle.” Then they interviewed Redford, asking him if Milagro was about class struggle. “God no,” he exclaimed, “It’s about something a lot bigger than that.” —Dancing on the Stones: Selected Essays by John Treadwell Nichols
It’s a pretty unwieldy novel to try to make into a movie, and, for example, in Roger Ebert’s review of the movie, he complains that Joe’s irrigation of the field “is more impulsive than studied,” which is totally true. Although there is about 125 years of history leading up to the act, the act itself wasn’t particularly premeditated. To paraphrase what Joe says, if he’d thought about it, he’d still be arguing with himself about it; once it’s done, then you can deal with the consequences rather than trying to figure out ahead of time what the consequences might be. So, Ebert’s complaint is correct, but also illustrates why the book isn’t particularly suited to be made into a movie. Not to mention Nichol’s observation that most Hollywood movies have 2-3 main characters, while his novel has… well, quite a few more than that.
But in terms of my reading challenge–reading books from each state where the setting is really an integral part of the story–The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols is pretty good. It’s big, it’s long, it rambles, and I’m not sure it’s got much of a destination, but we really do get to know the people and New Mexico. ¡Ay, Chihuahua!