Love, Lust, and Magic in Colonial New Mexico

Gerald McFarland1
Sunstone Press, 310 pp.  ISBN: 978-086534995
* * * *
Gerry McFarland merges academia and imagination. Before his retirement, McFarland taught courses in the American West at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, research he brings to bear in his debut novel. He’s published four academic tomes and scores of academic articles and reviews. Those familiar with scholarly writing will want to know whether he can crawl down from the ivory tower and write for the masses. The answer is yes. In fact, one of my few criticisms is that sometimes he’s guilty of a bit too much middlebrow sentiment.

This is the first of a planned trilogy on Don Carlos Buenaventura, a brujo (sorcerer). The novel opens in Mexico City in the year 1684, when our protagonist is a 19-year-old son of Spanish nobility. Actually, only Don Carlos is 19; his body hosts a sixth-generation brujo. Think Star Trek’s Trills, a joined species in which symbiants inhabit new bodies when the old one dies. Like Trills, a brujo has dual consciousness; he or she has the collective memories of past lives, yet experiences the yearnings, thoughts, musings, and sensations of the host. Unlike Trills, a brujo’s past memories, skills, and lessons are hazy, must be rediscovered, and can only accessed when consciously overcoming mortal temptations such as sexual desire, materialism, bodily comfort, status concerns, and other plebian distractions. This is a struggle for Don Carlos, who has grown up with elite privileges and is used to getting what he wants. He also has a decided weakness for, and considerable success with, pretty women.

Don Carlos’ life takes a turn when his father dies and his mother remarries. In a gendered twist on Cinderella, Don Carlos finds himself under the cruel tutelage (and possible inheritance-squandering behavior) of his stepfather. His stepfather’s tyranny encourages Don Carlos to set off on the Camino Real (Royal Road) toward Santa Fe, then a remote Spanish outpost surrounded by hostile Native tribes–not all of whom were pacified by the 1680 Pueblo Revolt that nearly eliminated Spanish rule from vast sections of today’s American Southwest. There are other dangers as well. Don Carlos is a brujo of the Sun Moiety whose motto is “Do no Harm,” but sorcerers of his ilk are outnumbered by malevolent Moon Moiety brujos that inconveniently show up. Moreover, brujos good or bad had to hide their identities because the Spanish Inquisition made its way to Mexico in 1569 and lasted into 1700. A brujo would certainly be considered a witch, and at least 50 people were executed as such.

Don Carlos learns to recover some of his magical powers, though he struggles to control his sexual lust. He meets and romances numerous women, including a married woman who introduces him to Tantric sex, and another who transforms from fencing partner to romantic interest, though she too might be married and there may something even more sinister afoot. Don Carlos thrives in New Mexico, but will he follow his heart or the brujo’s way?

McFarland’s work is enchanting in subject matter and in tone. He creates memorable characters, including active female protagonists. That’s not easy while being true to the machismo paternalistic ethos of New Spain. McFarland also takes us inside the mindset and magical battles of brujos, which is to say he gives us glimpses of belief systems unfamiliar to most readers. His literary style is inconsistent. Surprisingly for a historian whose students considered him a great storyteller, McFarland’s ear for dialogue is often stronger than his expository skills. Sometimes both he and his characters lapse into lecture mode. Love scenes are also occasionally awkward­–not salacious or tawdry, but titillating and overwrought. 

I see these as minor slips in a page-turner that comes at magical realism in ways that emphasize the second factor more than the first. Who can resist a book whose elements include magic, sex, violence, the peril-filled beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert, and a journey to find destiny, virtue, and honor?

Rob Weir

1 Full disclosure: I have known Gerry McFarland for nearly 30 years–as mentor, colleague, and friend. You’ll just have to trust me when I say I seek to review things as I see them. Those who’ve read this blog regularly know that I don’t do puff pieces!


Wasted Angst over Worthless Commencement Speeches

Here’s your spring challenge. If you have graduated from any school more than five years ago, name your commencement speaker. You can?  Okay–tell me one thing of substance that he or she said. Of course you can’t. If the speaker upstaged the grads, that person should be beaten with a bound copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and in the Home.

The irrelevance of commencement speeches underscores this year’s graduation embarrassments: red faces at Johns Hopkins and Rutgers when Ben Carson and Condoleezza Rice withdrew, Brandeis's shame in lifting an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and (just yesterday) the decision of Christine Lagarde’s to skip Smith College’s commencement because of planned student and faculty protests. It's time to stop the nonsense and follow Amherst College's practice of not using outside commencement speakers. Graduation speakers simply aren’t worth the ­sturm und drang.

Graduation speakers fall into six general categories:

            --Flavor of the Moment: A person chosen simply for being famous/infamous and who has next to nothing to do with education–like Ben Carson, Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga, or Sean Combs. If you recall your speaker, chances are good s/he fell into this category.
            --Faded Sunset: Someone who used to be famous and retains name recognition, but hasn’t done much lately–like Bill Shatner or Gloria Steinem.
            --Who? Someone that impresses the hell out of administrators, but students have never heard of–like Christine Lagarde.
            --Highly Inappropriate Speakers: Like Rice, Carson, or Lagarde. Not that they’re unaccomplished, but a commencement is no time to start a political brouhaha.
            --Famed Alum Makes Good: Perfect for those "you-can-do-it-too" speeches, but chosen mainly because administrators hope to cultivate this person as a board member and/or donor.
            --Local Business Leader: See Famed Alum Makes Good.

Smith flunked twice. Very few students actually knew Lagarde's name before she was announced. They knew of the International Monetary Fund that she heads, though. That doesn't make Lagarde a bad person, but when your majors include lots of budding economists, sovereignty savvy government students, erstwhile social workers, and idealists longing to work with grassroots development agencies and non-profits, she's not an intelligent choice. She was picked because she's an accomplished woman (which is, in a round about way, an insulting way to choose for a women's college). Moreover, Smith is still officially a liberal arts college, which meant Lagarde pushed all the wrong Smith-is-becoming-a-vocational-school panic buttons.

That said, I disagree with the notion of announcing speakers and then making it so hot that they back out. If you invite someone and they accept, debate their views before or after the speech, but practice civility toward the person. If you must, stand in silent protest when the speaker comes to the podium, but don't let your final college experience be an assault on academic freedoms you professed to cherish for four years. Besides, the real beef is with decision-makers out of touch with the campus culture, not the invitee. In the end, though, why endure angst over a commencement speech you'll soon forget?    

Want to remember the commencement speech over which you’re blanking? Here are the elements of approximately 99.6% of every graduation speeches ever delivered:

            --Congratulations to the graduates and a nod to the "difficult challenges" they've overcome (as if they've been digging coal for the past four years).
            --Thanks to parents.
            --Assurance that the graduates are really special–just what the helicoptered generation does not need to hear.
            --An inspiring story, personal or anecdotal.
            --Humorous remarks.
            --Banal and recycled comments on the value of education.
            --Observations that the world to which grads are being released will be filled with struggles, problems, and conundrums that society is waiting for them to solve.
            --An encomium to their proven track record of perseverance.
            --A call to be creative, grounded, flexible, and committed to life-long learning.
            --An assurance that grads are uniquely poised to overcome all obstacles and live a rewarding life.

Just change the order, anecdotes, jokes, and adjectives and you too can give a graduation speech. It helps if you go to the trouble to become (or have been) famous.

I say copy Amherst and just let the president deliver the speech. Eliminate angst. Bust out the boilerplate. Hand out the sheepskin. To students: Check your cell phones during the speech. Go party. Wake up the next day, pack your gear, and prepare for realities not mentioned in the speech.



Major League Baseball Thus Far

In April baseball optimism knows no bounds, but you shouldn’t make too much of early results. Raise your hand if you really think the Milwaukee Brewers are going to the World Series! Here’s what we’ve learned thus far.

1. The replay sucks. It simply slows down the game and isn’t any more “accurate” than the umps. Even worse, it makes the game as generic and corporate as the NFL.

2. Speaking of the NFL, those who love “parity” ought to be pleased–with the exception of train wrecks like the Astros, Cubs, and Diamondbacks, every team in baseball is either at, over, or within 5 games of .500. Count me among those who think parity is a synonym for mediocrity, not competitiveness.

3. Whatever the minors are doing to bring on young pitchers, it isn’t working. With the exception of Gonzalez, the most common name in baseball is Tommy John (as in surgery). Go back to training pitchers to toss 300 innings. It can’t be worse.

4. Anyone else think it would be a good idea to start the season later? Cleveland and 20 degrees anyone?

5. We’ll know better his second time through the league, but the Yankees’ Mashiro Tanaka seems to be everything he was advertised to be.

6. The AL East looks very weak this year. I said that 90 wins could take it. I’m feeling good about that prediction at present.

7. Local Teams I: The Red Sox sure are missing Jacoby Ellsbury so far. Bradley might be the answer, but he’s not so far. Ortiz’s bat has looked slow, and it stays that way when the weather gets hot, uh-oh. Bogaerts needs to be a third baseman or he’ll settle the debate over whether Jeter has the worst range among MLB shortstops. Everyone wants Grady Sizemore to be a feel-good story, but I fear he’s not going to be.

8. Local Teams II: Speaking of which, how much longer until the Yankees give up on Brian Roberts? It says here that June 1, he’s reassigned, Solarte goes to second, and Stephen Drew becomes a Yankee. Frankie Cervelli is the Nick Johnson of catchers. Time to cut bait–J. R. Murphy will do just fine. If I own this team, I tie Sabathia the dinner table until he’s fat and powerful again. Too early to tell if Jeter is done, but there’s no drive in his legs at present.

9. Local Teams III: I told Mets fans that Curtis Granderson was a bad signing. The Grandy Man can't.

10. Thus far I’m spot on in saying the Rays won’t hit and Toronto won’t pitch. The Orioles are good enough to stick around, but does this look like a championship caliber team to you? June 1—Kendry Morales.

11. Jose Abreu sure has excited ChiSox fans. As with Tanaka, we’ll know for sure about him when teams have seen him a few times, but he’s been awesome so far.

12. Told you that Robbie Cano would like his Seattle contract better than the ballpark. His slugging percentage is barely higher than his average.

13. I hate the Marlins, but Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton are worth seeing, which no one in Miami does. If Loria unloads them, or young pitcher Tom Koehler, MLB should veto the deals and strip Loria of the team. Think the Red Sox might want to have Saltamacchia back?

14. The Angels continue to be a team of a few thoroughbreds (Trout, Pojuls, Wilson) and a barn full of plow horses. What the hell happened to David Freese?

15. As predicted, the Giants have sprinted and the Dodgers have chemistry problems. Again Mattingly is in the hot seat and his new contract notwithstanding, I wouldn’t buy invest in local real estate were I he. The Dodgers are not a disaster, but with a roster (and payroll) like theirs, they should dominate, not hang around.

16. Who would have predicted Prince Fielder would suffer a power outage, that the Pirates would struggle, that the Phillies would play old, or that the Tigers would be better sans Leyland? I did, actually.

Don’t like what I’ve written about your team? Don’t worry; it’s only May. Last time I looked Miggy Cabrera was only hitting. 280. That won’t stand.