Shadows in My Hands

Americans have always gone West seeking a better life. On the surface, Jane Candia Coleman’s odyssey had little in common with those of settlers who crossed the Great Plains by wagon train, or of the Civil War veterans who drifted southwest to become the cowboys and gunmen of later legend. Unlike them, she had reliable automobiles, maps and weather forecasts, a research grant, and friends met on previous visits. Yet at its center, her quest was the same as theirs. She moved West out of desperation and hope, looking for a place to stat a new life, this time on her own terms. She found that place.

Despite the personal tone and perspective of the essays, the author spends few pages on the midlife crisis that brought her there. She is more interested in other people. Edith, strong as a pioneer woman, teaches her the names and uses of wild desert plants. Edith’s brother Archie spins the lore of outlaws’ hidden caches. At Acoma, she talks of grandmothers and craft with a pueblo woman. There are glimpses into corners of the past: Wyatt Earp’s second wife Mattie; the three brothers who built Bent’s Fort; the enormous changes in the southwest’s vegetation since the turn of the century.

Other essays toss out strange questions. Why, for example, does one need to worry about a horse who shies at bedsprings? Why do old men believe jet planes are interfering with the weather? Was there ever a real roundup where cowboys had the energy to sit around the campfire and strum songs after dinner? These pieces are amusing, but thought-provoking too, because they point out how even this remote region is changing with the times.

Yet not everything changes. The land and sky and seasons are timeless. The sudden flowering when rain falls after months of droughts still comes as a miracle. Horses still provide transportation where wheels cannot go. The sunsets still paint the mountains in shades of ocher and rose and deep blue and molten gold. Coleman has found a true land of enchantment in her new home, and she shares some of the magic in this book.