I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team, and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.
When I first read about this book, I was intrigued by the setting (one I must confess I’m not very familiar with but I’ve always been interested in) and the period of the story most of all. I’ve become an eager reader of historical fiction, and I’ve learned plenty about times and places I knew nothing about. This is another perfect example of the way novels can inform and entertain at the same time, immersing us on a time and place completely at odds with our everyday experience. This is book two in the series of novels of Old New Mexico, and although it can be read independently, I must admit I would have liked to be better acquainted with the previous lives of the characters.
Suzanna is very young. Newly wed and only sixteen, she is thrown in at the deep end. She is not very domesticated for a woman of the period (the story is set in the early XIX century): she does not know how to cook, and she was brought up by her father to love books rather than other more feminine tasks, although she does sew, cleans, and knows how to keep a house, more or less (but she did have help back at her father’s house, in Taos, and she still has some help here, because Ramón does the cooking, otherwise they’d die of hunger). She loves to be outdoors and grow plants and vegetables most of all and that is another source of irritation for her in her new location, as this is high mountain territory, and neither the weather nor the seasons are as mild as what she was used to at home.
Suzanna finds fault with everything and she is not the most likeable of characters to begin with, although as we keep reading, the sheer drudgery and harshness of her life, and her brave attempts at making the best out of it end up by endearing her to the reader. We also come to understand that there is something more behind the changes in mood and she needs help, although it is difficult to imagine what form it could take at that point and in that place. Gerald, her husband, does his best and tries to understand her, although he has little time and no workable solutions to make things better. Ramón is a quiet presence and a likeable one, as he is always at hand to help. A perfect example of the strong and quiet type, Mexican style. He and the main characters in the novel experience major and very traumatic losses, and they use different coping strategies to deal with very difficult circumstances. There are other very colourful characters that make their appearance in the book, including Native Americans of different tribes, trappers, Mexican Army soldiers, and assorted animals as well. Some of them, as the author explains at the end of the book, where real historical characters, and they seamlessly mix with the fictional characters whose story we are reading.
The story is a slow burner, rather than a quick page turner, and it is narrated in the third person, mostly from Suzanna’s point of view, but also from a pretty nasty character’s viewpoint (I’m trying to avoid spoilers, although the description will give you a fair idea of the plot), that gives us a different perspective and also creates a fairly uncomfortable reading experience, as we get to share in the thoughts of a man who does not seem to have a single redeeming feature. The author does an excellent job of capturing the natural rhythm of the seasons, and we experience the harshness of the natural environment, the difficulty of coping with extreme weather conditions and having to survive on one’s own wits, but she also brings to life the beauty and the joy of the landscape and the location.
Another very strong point of this novel is the way it reflects the mental health difficulties of Suzanna. Her dark moods, the way she is influenced by the seasons and the lack of light and exercise in the winter months, her irritability, her difficulty explaining her feelings, and how she is further hindered by several losses throughout the book and the effect the birth of her children has on her already fragile mental health are explored and made palpable. Because we share in her perspective, although at first we might think she is just too young and immature for the situation she has landed herself in, we later come to see how hard her circumstances would be for anybody. And when her father visits and explains that she’s always had difficulties in certain times of the year, but they’d managed it well, we understand that she had not been aware of these problems until she had to face them by herself, in more extreme and tough conditions. The author explains her research on depression (post-natal depression and also seasonal affective disorder) and provides the historical context as to how the condition would have been dealt with at the time, in her note at the back of the book. From my experience as a psychiatrist, having talked to and looked after many patients suffering from similar conditions, her portrayal is realistic and vivid, and it reflects well the feelings and desperation of the sufferers.
I learned plenty about the New Mexico of the era, its inhabitants, its customs, and its politics. The author’s research shines through, and she makes an excellent use of it without overbearing the reader. The book also includes an index of the sources used, and a list of the historical characters that make an appearance in the series.
I would recommend this book to anybody who loves historical fiction of this era and location, in particular people who enjoy books about the pioneers and the settlers of the Southern United States. It is not a book for people looking for constant action or for a light read. There are humorous moments, and there is light relief (mostly provided by the dogs. I loved all the dogs, although my favourite was Chaser), but there are also sad and scary moments, and although the book is not terribly graphic in its depiction of violence (and there is no erotica at all), there is violence and a sense of menace and threat that permeates a lot of the novel. If you are fans of Little House in the Prairie and prefer narrations that build up slowly but have a realistic feel, you must check this novel out. I am intrigued by the series, and I hope to learn more about the further adventures of Suzanna and her family.