The Taos Massacres
by John Durand (Philippines 196264)
Reviewed by Craig J. Carrozzi (Colombia 1978-80)
GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ, the Nobel Prize winning Colombian novelist once said, I write fiction because it is truer than our history. Perhaps the same can be said of John Durand and his historical novel The Taos Massacres.
When viewed through the prism of official United States history books, we are often given a simplistic view of the Mexican-American War. It was all about MANIFEST DESTINY! and REMEMBER THE ALAMO! and THE WHITE MANS BURDEN! to bring civilization and the rule of law to the benighted savages. Well, in this book, John Durand doesnt settle for these jingles. He shows the other side of the coin right alongside the more official version. To the dispossessed Mexicans and most of the Native American tribes in the region, the United States invasion of New Mexico was an imperialistic grab for land and resources.
Using a panoply of colorful historic figures, ranging from Lewis Garrard, the young educated tenderfoot from St. Louis, to En-di-ond, a huge Delaward Indian known as Big Nigger to whites, Durand paints a landscape of grit, blood, fury, beauty, and bemusement in the Land of Enchantment. Why then, after the bloodless takeover of Santa Fe by Colonel Stephen Kearney and the Army of the West in August of 1846, does Taos explode in an orgy of violence in January of 1847?
As Father Antonio Martinez put it to the American officers who came with a mixed bag of troops, trappers, and frontiersmen to avenge the massacre of the American governor Charles Bent, and some of the leading townsmen who were viewed as collaborators, by a mob of Mexicans and Pueblo Indians, We have a saying: The best law is a rusty tool. And Father Martinez went on to explain how under Mexican rule most disputes were settled by the alcalde (mayor) talking things out with the involved parties, and perhaps calling in the priest for counsel, and often as not the quarrels would disappear like water into the ground. But with you Americans everything is the law. The law is a shiny, sharp tool. Everything has to be looked up in books. Everything has to be written down. And when Senor Lee became Sheriff, he of course said everyone had to follow these new laws . . . even though he lived here for many, many years where the law is a rusty tool. Sheriff Lee locked up a number of Pueblo Indians for various infractions under the new laws which were a source of unrest.
Of course, beyond the rusty tool analogy was a deeper problem. Property rights. The former Rico Mexicans were going to have to prove they actually owned what they said to the new American rulers and figured they might have a better chance to keep what they had if they fought to drive the Americans out. Caught between the American invaders and the New Mexican-Mexicans and Pueblo Indians were a group of white settlers, mainly French-Canadian trappers and Missourians, who had married Mexican women and acquired land under the old regime. Most of these sided with the new American authority, some were given important positions, and the stage was set for a massacre of innocents and an even bloodier series of reprisals which Durand illustrates in Maileresque detail.
Near the end, Ceran St. Vrain tells Lewis Garrad, . . . theyre all going to live with a lot of hurt for a long, long time. And for what, Lewis? For revenge? For getting what we think is ours? For getting more? Because we think we know whats right or whats true? St. Vrain was silent, lost in thought. But then it never ends, does it?
No, it never does!
Craig Carrozzi, author/publisher has just published his fifth book, The Curse of Chief Tenaya, and is doing a number of performance readings throughout California to dramatize this historic western thriller and call attention to the possibility of someday restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley which was dammed in 1915.