Armchair America: Arizona through Books

January 31, 2015

Having completed my armchair travels to Alabama and Alaska,  I am continuing my literary odyssey with a bookish romp through Arizona.  I have actually traveled to Arizona three times: once to Flagstaff where my husband and I met up with our guides for a rafting trip down the Colorado River, once again to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and once to Page where I was privileged to walk through one of the most beautiful spots on earth, Antelope Canyon.

My daughter at the Grand Canyon, 2005

My daughter at the Grand Canyon, 2005


Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ

Once again before embarking on my armchair visit, I consulted reference librarians for their personal recommendations for books that best embody Arizona in print.

Deborah at the Pima County Public Library system suggested finding good selections on its link called Southwest Books of the Year.  And Karen, a another librarian at the Pima County Public Library system, offered a neat link with a map of literary locations along with these recommendations:

— These Is My Words:  The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881 – 1901:  Arizona Territories by Nancy E. Turner
— The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

A Gift of Angels: the Art of Mission San Xavier Del Bac by Bernard Fontana
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Sharmat

Postcard with map of Arizona

Postcard with map of Arizona

Vintage postcard of Arizona

Vintage postcard of Arizona

Now let me take you on a whirlwind trip to Arizona through the books I actually read:

Adult Fiction:

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver.  In this novel, Taylor, a young woman from Kentucky, sets out west for a fresh start in life.  While passing through the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, she is handed a baby girl for safekeeping, abandoned by a woman in obviously dire straits.  Taylor names the girl, Turtle, and together they end up in Tucson.  Here is a description of the Arizona landscape through Taylor’s eyes:

“We crossed the Arizona state line at sunup.  The clouds were pink and fat and hilarious — looking like the hippo ballerinas in a Disney movie.  The road took us through a place called Texas Canyon that looked nothing like Texas, heaven be praised for that, but looked like nothing else I had ever seen either.  It was a kind of forest, except that in place of trees there were all these puffy-looking rocks shaped like roundish animals and roundish people.  Rocks stacked on top of one another like piles of copulating potato bugs.”

“This is a foreign country,” I told [Turtle].  “Arizona.”

Even the citizens of Tucson were different:  “Standing in line at the lunch counters and coffeeshops [the New Age people of Tucson] would rub the backs of each other’s necks and say, ‘You’re holding a lot of tension here.'”

Later, after living in Tucson for a while, Taylor says:  “What still amazed me about the desert was all the life it had in it. . . . There were bushes and trees and weeds here, exactly the same as anywhere else, except that the colors were different, and everything alive had thorns.”  She watches an approaching storm:  “A storm was coming up from the south, moving slowly.  It looked something like a huge blue-gray shower curtain being drawn along by the hand of God.”

Taylor’s new friends in Tucson provide a safe house for political refugees from Central America, and this association opens her eyes to more of the suffering in the world:  “I thought I’d had a pretty hard life.  But I keep finding out that life can be hard in ways I never knew about.”  When the threat of deportation arises, Taylor offers to drive Esteban and Esperanza to another sanctuary in Oklahoma.  Taylor also hopes to find Turtle’s aunt and get signed guardianship papers, but that turns out to be like finding a needle in a haystack.  An “illegal” adoption, “illegal” aliens — this novel addresses the tensions between following one’s conscience to do the right thing and the rules of the legal system.

Vintage postcard of the Grand Canyon

Vintage postcard of the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon postcard

Grand Canyon postcard

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. The four protagonists of this novel engage in eco-terrorism, sabotaging the billboards, bridges, construction equipment, and development that is destroying the wilderness of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.  The conspiracy to join forces and form the Monkeywrench Gang is launched during a rafting trip down the Colorado River, and Abbey’s descriptions of that boat trip brought back good memories of my own boat trip through the upper Grand Canyon in 1978:

“More gnashing river, heaving waves, the clash of elementals, the pure and brainless fury of tons of irresistible water clashing down upon tons of immovable limestone.  They felt the shocks, they heard the roar, saw foam and spray and rainbows floating on the mist as they rode through chaos into the clear.  The adrenaline of adventure, without the time for dread, buoyed them high on the waves.”

“In the grand stillness between rapids, which was half the river and most of the time, Smith and Hayduke rested on their oars and let the song of a canyon wren — a clear glissando of semiquavers — mingle with the drip of waterdrops, the gurgle of eddies, the honk of herons, the rustle of lizards in the dust on shore.  Between rapids, not silence but music and stillness.  While the canyon walls rose slowly higher, 1000, 1500, 2000 feet, the river descending, and the shadows grew longer and the sun shy.”

The gang escalates its clandestine activities against oil and mining companies, and inevitably draws the attention of the law.  The pursuit grows tense; several times they are nearly caught, but they navigate the inhospitable wilderness to their advantage under the relentless sun:  “That desert sun of Utah-Arizona, the infernal flaming plasmic meatball in the sky.”

These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881 – 1901 by Nancy E. Turner.  This is an historical novel about 17-year-old Sarah Prine’s journey across the Arizona Territories from Prescott to Texas and back again to Douglas.  The trek is beset by extreme hardships and trials — Sarah’s brother dies of snakebite, Indians raid and steal horses and kill fellow travelers, and Sarah’s father dies from an infected bullet wound.  Sarah regrets that she had never had the opportunity to attend school and finally passes her high school equivalency test as an adult and mother.

“It seems there is always a road with bends and forks to choose and taking one path means you can never take another one.  There’s no starting over nor undoing the steps I’ve taken.  It isn’t like I’d want to not have my little ones and Jack and that ranch, it is part of life to have to support yourself.  It’s just that I want everything, my insides are not just hungry, but greedy.  I want to find out all the things in the world and still have a family and a ranch.  Maybe part of passing that test was a marker for where I’ve been, but it feels more like a pointer for something I’ll never reach.”

This is a wonderful story about resilience in the face of sorrows.

Hondo by Louis L’Amour.  I could hardly visit Arizona without reading a classic western.  Hondo was L’Amour’s first full-length novel published in 1953.  It tells the story of Hondo Lane, a scout and dispatch rider for the General Cook during a time when the Apaches, “that fiercest and wiliest of guerrilla fighters,” were attacking white settlers in an attempt to clear them from the territory.  Lane encounters a lone woman, Angie,  and her 6-year-old son ranching on a small homestead, and they refuse to leave the area.  Hondo’s and Angie’s lives become entwined as the Apache threat runs its course.

The stark desert is a vivid backdrop to the story.  “Desert . . . not a dead land, but a land where all life is born with a fire, a thorn, a sting.  One cannot fight the desert and live.  One lives with it, or one dies.  One learns its way and its life, and moves with care, and never ceases to be wary, for the desert has traps and tricks for the careless.”

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman.  This was the first of 18 Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries set on Navaho tribal lands near Window Rock, Arizona.  I like this series for the snippets of anthropological findings about Navaho culture that tie into the various cases.  The Blessing Way, for example, touches on witches in the Navaho belief system.  “Leaphorn never counted on luck.  Instead he expected order — the natural sequence of behavior, the cause producing the natural effect, the human behaving in the ways it was natural for him to behave.  He counted on that and upon his own ability to sort out the chaos of observed facts and find them in this natural order.”

Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett.  After his discharge from the army, Homer Smith has chosen the freedom of the road, picking up odd jobs when he needs money, and stopping or moving about as the spirit move him.  “A man was free when he could say ‘yes’ or say ‘no.'”

When Homer sees some women struggling to raise a fence, he stops to see if he can pick up some paid work.  He learns that the women were a group of four German-speaking nuns who had a dream of building a chapel in the desert.  They have no money but lots of faith.  Smith is irresistibly drawn to building the chapel for them, unpaid for his labor.  “These were people who needed something that he had to give.”

While this heart-warming novel does not name the state where this story takes place, it is in the desert west of the Rocky Mountains, and the movie adaptation was filmed in Arizona.

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton.  In this novel, the Department of Defense orbits 17 satellites around the earth with the express intent of collecting alien organisms and bringing them back to earth.  It hopes to discover pathogens for possible use in biological warfare.  When one of these satellites lands in the tiny, remote town of Piedmont, AZ, population 48, catastrophe hits.  Most of the people in the town die mysterious deaths, astonishingly quick but exhibiting no bleeding.  Several short-term survivors commit suicide.  A team of five scientists race against time to discover the cause of deaths and try to contain its spread.

Adult Nonfiction:

Lazy B:  Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day.  This is less an autobiography of our country’s first female Supreme Court Justice and more of an elegy for a disappearing way of life — the era of open range cattle ranching.  The ranch where Sandra Day O’Connor spent her childhood sprawled the high desert country on the border of Arizona and New Mexico, an area about one fifth the size of Rhode Island.  We learn how the Days survived and made a living grazing cattle in this land where water was scarce.  “Living at the ranch involved all of these components — association with our old-time, long-suffering, good natured cowboys; living in isolation with just one another and with few luxuries; eating mostly beef and beans, dried fruit, and biscuits; riding horseback for long hours in the heat and dust; seeing the plant, animal, insect, and bird life of the Southwest close at hand; and enjoying the love and companionship of Mo and Da, not just on evenings and weekends, but all the time.”  They lived close to the land and the cycles of nature.  “The Day family felt lucky to have such a place in our lives — a never-changing anchor in a world of uncertainties.”

The Grand Canyon Reader, edited by Lance Newman.  This collection of essays extols the wonders and diversity of the Grand Canyon.  It includes accounts by Colin Fletcher, “the man who walked through time,” who hiked the area and excerpts from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire:  “Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone.  Not so much from choice as from necessity — I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go.  I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”

I particularly liked John Muir’s “Grand Canon of the Colorado” with his painterly descriptions:  “In a dry, hot, monotonous forested plateau, seemingly boundless, you come suddenly and without warning upon the abrupt edge of a gigantic sunken landscape of the wildest, most multitudinous features, and those features, sharp and angular, are made out of flat beds of limestone and sandstone forming a spiry, jagged, gloriously colored mountain-range countersunk in a level gray plain. . . . I cannot tell the hundredth part of the wonders of its features — the side canons, gorges, alcoves, cloisters, and amphitheaters of vast sweep and depth, carved into its magnificent walls; the throng of great architectural rocks it contains resembling castles, cathedrals, temples, and palaces, towered and spired and painted, some of them nearly a mile high, yet beneath one’s feet.”

from Cactus Hotel

from Cactus Hotel

Juvenile Books:

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat.  A child, born and raised in New York, has to move out West, against his wishes, with his parents.  He will miss NYC, and dreads encountering the buffaloes, prickly cactus, gila monsters, and buzzards of Arizona.  And he doesn’t want to wear chaps and spurs and say “howdy.”  Landing at the airport, he overhears another child bemoaning a move to the East, where there are sure to be gangsters, crowds, heavy traffic, snow, and skyscrapers that block the sky.  Oh, how our preconceptions color our fears!

Cactus Hotel by Brenda Z. Guiberson.  This book follows the life cycle of the iconic saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona.  Two feet tall after 25 years, the cactus is visited by a pack rat, a squirrel, a coyote and a jackrabbit.  After 50 years, the cactus is ten feet tall and attracts birds and bees, bats and woodpeckers.  After 60 years, the 18-foot saguaro is home to ants and mice.  And so on to 200 years later, when it falls in a wind and its decaying ribs hide the collared lizard and ground snake.








9 Responses to “Armchair America: Arizona through Books”

  1. Bev Morrow Says:

    Very informative. Looks like you have been doing a lot of reading. I have been following your blog for a couple years now and find all your posts inspiring, captivating, and awesome photos–to boot.

  2. Sun Says:

    the Bean Tree sounds interesting. great review on all the books on Arizona.

  3. Adrienne Says:

    I enjoyed taking the trip with you

  4. […] for avid readers, Rosemary Washington has a cool blog project called Armchair America Through Books. I love how she focuses not only on […]

  5. shoreacres Says:

    I’ve never been to Arizona. I’ve been all around the state, but I’ve just never crossed that border.

    I was surprised to see that the most appealing book in your list was “The Cactus Hotel.” I’m fascinated by the saguaro, and dream of seeing some one day, but this would be a delightful substitute in the meantime.

    While you’re reading, you might keep an eye out for the name Hi Jolly. He was one of the camel herders when the beasts were brought to Texas, and he’s buried in Arizona. I’ll be writing more about him — strange tales — but he’s apparently famous enough that his monument there still gets visitors.

    Some of the best photos I have of my dad were taken next to a swimming pool in Mesa. After he retired, he and Mom went out there with friends during the Iowa winters. He clearly was a happy camper.

    • Rosemary Says:

      I never did see saguaro cactus and learned they grown only in the southern part of the state (someone said Phoenix and south from there). I’ll be looking forward to your post about camel herding!

  6. […] my alphabetical journey across America through books.  Having read my way through Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, and Arkansas, today I am making a detour to Nebraska in preparation for an upcoming trip to see […]

  7. […] since I reread Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees for my Armchair Arizona blog post, I am reminded of her novel when I see wisteria.  In the book, Taylor’s little […]

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