Frontier Fantasies

River of Traps: A Village Life University

by William deBuys and Alex Harris
University of New Mexico Press/Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, 238 pp., $19.95

The Place Where Souls Are Born: A Journey to the Southwest

by Thomas Keneally, Introduction by Jan Morris
Simon and Schuster, 249 pp., $20.00

Jews of the American West

edited by Moses Rischin, edited by John Livingston
Wayne State University Press, 226 pp., $29.95

William deBuys’s first book about New Mexico dealt with the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and its fate at the hands of trappers, miners, loggers, land-grabbers, naturists, and “sportsmen” who descended on it in successive waves. Each group had its own interests to impose on the hills, the southernmost range of the Rockies; and those with the highest quality palaver were not always least destructive of the living inhabitants.

DeBuys’s tribute to the mountains drew on a wide experience, deep feelings, and a polished prose style that showed, to the most casual eye, the results of careful training and hard work. The author represented himself, how accurately I do not know, as one of the hippie generation which spattered across the landscape for a while, squatting in shacks, smoking pot, and pretending to live “close to nature.” Perhaps he meant no more than that for a while he wore his hair long. One thing he did not share with some others of the counterculture was a taste for sloppy and amateurish craftsmanship. His book on the Sangre de Cristos was thoroughly researched and meticulously written—the sort of book that adds luster to an entire countryside.

His second book, titled River of Traps, narrows its focus perceptibly, to a less than impressive stream, the Rio Trampas, which descends from the high mountains through the hamlet of El Valle to the village of Las Trampas on its way to the Rio Grande. Why “river of traps?” Nobody seems to know exactly, except that beaver trappers swarmed through the mountain country generally in the middle of the last century, busily exterminating the beaver population. (It is still, and no doubt permanently, extinct. But if this was the reason, every stream in the countryside ought to have the same name.) In any event, the new book is less about the river than about a single resident of El Valle, Jacobo Romero. Already in his seventies, he was a farmer who happened to be living next to the property that deBuys and his friend Alex Harris bought when they came to town. Jacobo was not only a neighbor but an extraordinarily kind and good friend. Gringos, especially young gringos who wear their hair long and have no fixed place of employment, are not always welcomed by the Spanish residents of our mountain communities. The history of the region provides many reasons for jealous resentment, above and beyond the present privileges of Anglos. DeBuys and Harris (neither of whom spoke a word of Spanish) were warned by men of experience that if they moved into a community like El Valle, they would get their “asses peeled.” Though imprecise, this was no idle threat; but Jacobo Romero, by befriending them, saved them from this painful fate, and softened their reception into the close and often suspicious circle of village life.

He helped in more immediate ways too. City dwellers, as deBuys and Harris were, are likely to suppose that irrigating a field from a ditch is…

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