Native Americans in Arizona oppose a mining operation in this ecological novel.
Tom Rogers, a semicommitted environmentalist, is the editor of the Halston Gazette in southern Arizona. Unfortunately the paper’s owner/publisher is Tom’s father, “the Rhino,” a domineering, self-made right-winger. (The Rhino bought the paper to give his floundering son some purpose.) Tom’s one reporter is Dilip Chakraborty, an Indian immigrant and a tenacious newshound. And Tom’s love interest is Jinny, a talented (and of course beautiful) artist of mixed Navajo and Tohono O’odham descent. Other characters drift in and out like static on a bad radio station. The setup is that an Australian concern wants to level a mountain sacred to the Tohono O’odham for open-pit copper mining. And the Native Americans are not alone in their opposition. Still, the fix seems to be in. That is until bulldog Dilip gets his teeth into it. Readers also have the love story of Tom and Jinny—Jinny’s ex-husband is a “skinwalker,” a shape-shifting medicine man—and a lot of helpful background in Southwestern history and geography. (There is a standoff with the ex-husband in Canyon de Chelly.) The book is narrated in retrospect by Tom from his cabin on the Mogollon Rim, where he has retreated to lick his wounds, which is a good delaying device for the story. Smith—who also writes under the name Moose Eliot (Heaven Help Us All, 2013, etc.)—sets his tale in an intriguing locale both geographically and culturally. He keeps the story moving, and the writing has its moments, though it can get precious (“volupt” for voluptuous?). But his love of the Southwestern landscape comes through. His vivid descriptions transcend tourism clichés (“We…looked into what seemed the basement of the world. Miniature-seeming stands of juniper and mesquite dotted the soft, tan earth of the Canyon’s broad floor….Embracing all, rising all around, towering sandstone cliffs ran from clay red to dark ochres; taller than skyscrapers, they were unreal in their lithic grandeur”). But given the nature of the story’s theme, nuance is not Smith’s strong suit. That is, the rants on both sides sometimes seem scripted and stilted. But that comes with the (ecological) territory. Ultimately, he succeeds in making his characters three-dimensional, not just cardboard cutouts. So there is much to recommend in these pages, a book that’s earnest without being dead earnest.
A timely environmental tale with a strong cast.