The Novels

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In his preface to The Nirvana Blues, John Nichols recalls,When I sat down to begin The Milagro Beanfield War, I had no idea the story would grow into a trio of books. . . . All three novels are set in mythical Chamisa county, where the folks, the situations and the landscapes resemble parts of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Should they survive, I suppose future interested persons might refer to these books as his New Mexico Trilogy,’ even though the name of New Mexico never appears in any of the texts.

By the end of the decade, as if by self-fulfilling prophecy, the three novels had already survived several printings and were collectively if informally known under the title suggested by their author.

With The Milagro Beanfield War, John Nichols laid claim to a vast but remote portion of the American West only partially explored by Richard Bradford in Red Sky at Morning (1968) and So Far from Heaven (1973). The territory surveyed, ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), tends to resist American influence; the indigenous population is largely descended from Spaniards who first settled the region in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Nichols points out throughout his trilogy, the entrenched Hispanic subculture remained largely unchanged until early in the twentieth century, when improved travel and technology brought in English-speaking invaders from all over the United States. That invasion and its consequences, most fully documented in The Magic Journey, provides the theme and context for the entire trilogy, in which the indigenous Hispanic population of the area is threatened with extinction because of claims and counterclaims regarding land and water rights.

In The Milagro Beanfield War, successfully filmed in 1988 by Robert Redford, one man’s impulsive act brings to a head a number of conflicts that have been slowly building for years. Joe Mondragòn, a handyman, small-time farmer, and occasional petty criminal, one day decides to dislodge the barrier that keeps water flowing past his small plot of land instead of into it. Almost at once, Joe’s gesture takes on unintended and unexpected symbolic significance, alerting the Anglo power brokers to possible subversive activity among the natives. Ladd Devine, hereditary proprietor of the ranching conglomerate that has been acquiring land in and around Milagro since the late nineteenth century, has moved into full-scale development, with several resort projects already completed; to defend his interests, he has a coterie of local henchmen and hangers-on, not to mention valuable contacts in the state capital. Whatever land Devine does not own is now the property of the U.S. Forest Service, the “Floresta,” having been acquired from its original Chicano owners over the years by means no less devious than Devine’s. Joe Mondragòn’s deed thus attracts the attention of the state police, most dangerously present in the person of one Kyril Montana, a plainclothes agent who seeks to discredit Joe and his cohorts, if any, by fair means or foul.

As it happens, Joe has no cohorts at the outset; most of his fellow “natives,” including a couple of Anglo transplants, see his action as potentially provocative and try to distance themselves from it. The local sheriff, a Chicano named Bernabé Montoya, does his somewhat ineffectual best to maintain order without choosing sides; Charley Bloom, a transplanted Boston lawyer with a Chicano second wife, has handled cases for Joe in the past but is quite hesitant to involve himself in the currently brewing scandal. Before long, however, Ladd Devine and his various allies have made it quite clear that they intend to neutralize Joe through entrapment, accusing him of some crime other than the irrigation of what...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Nichols, John. If Mountains Die: A New Mexico Memoir. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. A partial autobiography with valuable background comment on the trilogy.

Wild, Peter. John Nichols. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1986. A critical overview stressing the importance of the trilogy in Nichols’s collected works.