The Milagro Beanfield War, by John Nichols
Reviewed by A.J. Martine
John Nichols sets magical realism in the hills and mountains of north-central New Mexico in The Milagro Beanfield War. Nichols spins a story about a people hiding from time who work long days to scrap a poor living from a hard land where natural resources, especially grazing forage and water are used and misused by developers in collaboration with state and federal agencies. Slowly, through several generations, most of the residents have lost grazing and water rights. They stand in parched fields and watch the water they once owned flow past in ditches to irrigate high-end housing developments, dude ranches, and golf courses.
One day Joe Mondragon wakes up pissed. He’s had enough. Joe stares into the ditch where water that his family and others in Miracle Valley owned for a couple of centuries flows past his patch of scorched beans. Because of the law he can only stare at the stolen water. Then this skinny man digs into its bank and lets water flow into his meager field to irrigate a small patch of pathetic frijolles. The trickle of water ignites a war of monumental proportions! Nichols weaves humor throughout this story of perpetual class struggles, bigotry, government officials who serve only to protect the rights of rich patrons, and the liberal do-gooders who have assigned themselves the task of saving the Hispanic inhabitants from themselves.
Nichols makes this story funny. The sniping at oppressive systems and confused rural residents is painted with a subtle pen, yet at the end, not only have you read a terrific piece of literature, you have also been enlightened about social and environmental issues. In fact, in real New Mexico, Forest Service employees put the Beanfield message to work and took personal risks to invite all invested stakeholders to sit down and talk in order to solve local natural resource and cultural, social,and economic issues.
The Milagro Beanfield War can be a primer for a progressive, benevolent, and functioning government that truly wants to serve the needs of the people while maintaining ecologic integrity. And it’s a damn good story! I don’t know if Joe Mondragon reads very much but I would urge you to own this book and read it, read it often.