Going Back to Bisbee

Bisbee is a small mountain town in southern Arizona not far from the Mexican border. Richard Shelton, who is now a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, got his first job teaching junior high school in Bisbee in 1956 when it was still producing millions of dollars worth of copper ore. During the past thirty-seven years he has developed a broad knowledge of the vast desert region that was acquired from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase: its history, geology, flora, fauna, and diverse human inhabitants. He skillfully weaves his lifelong experiences into a tale about a single sentimental journal to revisit the scenes of his youth. The theme of going back to Bisbee is an effective device to provide dramatic interest and hold the rambling narrative together.

“I don’t know what I’m looking for, or why,” Shelton writes at the beginning. “I have a crazy notion that whatever it is, it’s in Bisbee, something I lost there or left there.” At the end he writes: “I can never really go back to Bisbee. . . .Whatever I came here to find is part of the past and will have to remain part of the past — part of the old Bisbee that doesn’t exist anymore.” Bisbee has become an artist colony and tourist attraction, maintaining a precarious existence and hoping against hope that a reopening of the copper mines will save it from disintegrating into another Arizona ghost town.

Shelton is a well-known poet and essayist who has published in more than two hundred magazines and journals. His sensitive, introspective prose will remind readers of Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Wallace Stegner. GOING BACK TO BISBEE is not an eventful or exciting book. Sheldon deliberately avoids rehashing such tales as those of Billy the Kid and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Instead, he spends many pages describing the coyotes, native plants, and the meandering rivers that appear and disappear in this parched land. His book, an intricate work of art based on a lifetime of keen observation, merits comparison with Thoreau’s WALDEN, the work which seems to have provided its inspiration.