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The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

The Milagro Beanfield War (1974)

by John Nichols

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Towards the close of The Milagro Beanfield War, the one-armed Onofre Martinez, drunkenly reflecting upon the flawed sort of angels that must protect the small town of Milagro, observes: "This place just reeks of crippled glory.” There could be no better epithet for this brilliant novel.

A sprawling work, full of humor and pathos, and peopled with an unforgettable set of characters, whose human weaknesses and error are only occasionally punctuated by moments of greatness, it reads almost like a folk-epic, piecemeal in its construction, and yet somehow organically whole in its totality. Composed of endless vignettes, each of which offers a small gem of a short story, it is also an entirely coherent and satisfactory whole.

Whether writing of the seemingly immortal old man, Amarante Cordova; of the comic-tragic Seferino Pacheco, the cultured illiterate forever chasing after his runaway pig; or of Joe Mondragon, the "pint-sized" troublemaker whose decision to illegally irrigate his beanfield would lead to such trouble; Nichols has a keen eye for the absurd, and a profound understanding of the complicated negotiations that occur between people and cultures.

As he weaves his collection of tales together, Nichols returns again and again to some of the same themes. Among which are: the long-term effects of colonialism; the inequitable distribution of resources and resultant human misery; the difficulties of communicating, whether across racial, cultural, and gender lines - or at all; and the ways in which our better human impulses are so frequently derailed by weakness, of intellect or emotion.

I will confess that I have a long history with The Milagro Beanfield War, which I first read at the age of twelve, and which remains, to this day, one of the few books that has ever made me laugh out loud. As someone who grew up surrounded by left-wing activists of one stripe or another; people who were prone to speaking, as Nichols himself does in the Epilogue to the Anniversary Edition, of "THE movement;" I do not think that Nichols overreaches in an effort to create "quirky" characters. The "truth" of some of his depictions was startling, even to my twelve-year-old self, and I felt as if I knew some of these people, fictional or no.

Their cruelty, to each other and to the world around them, occasionally horrified me; just as their willful or unconscious inability to expand their narrow view of themselves, and of others, sometimes infuriated me. This holds true both for the "villains" and "heroes," none of whom are, as another reviewer here has pointed out, terribly likable. But intermixed with the many moments of human pettiness are instances of generosity and compassion. These fallible humans may not be transformed by the end, but they have had moments of transcendence. ( )
1 vote AbigailAdams26 | Jun 28, 2013 |
Nichols needs to take a few creative writing classes on how to do character development. Continually interrupting plot action with too-late and too-long five-page digressions on minor characters is not good character development. Moreover, The Milagro Beanfield War is full of inconsistent formatting; typos and grammar errors also abound—both in English and in Spanish. For one example, there are three occurrences of a modal auxiliary verb, the preposition of, and a past participle verb, in that order, in one paragraph alone on page one hundred sixty-five. This is a big no-no, grammatically. Would of grown up and its compañeros—like must of been, and would of told—make absolutely no sense whatsoever because the word of is a preposition, not a non-modal auxiliary verb, such as have. (The correct contraction of would have is would’ve, not would of.) These nonsensical strings of words are illogical gibberish; they are non sequiturs. Sometimes, though, authors who apparently don’t understand how to effectively employ the use of eye dialect deliberately put them in their books. (Margaret Atwood, Raymond Chandler, and Cormac McCarthy have been guilty of this practice, to name a few others who come to mind.) This misapplication is undoubtedly what happened in this case. There are plenty of valid applications of eye dialect out there though—it’s not always misused. On occasion, for example, an author “winks” at the savvy, educated reader who realizes that a character’s accent is being portrayed or is being made fun of or that a character is saying something ungrammatical (or at least what prescriptivists might term as “substandard English”) because he or she doesn’t know any better. Eye dialect is not necessarily a bad thing. When it’s done right, it can be part of what makes for good writing. It can even greatly add to the creativity of a book. Such is not the case with this particular ungrammatical structure, however, because nobody ever says such a thing. This is not a spoken error! It is a written error. And it is incorrectly written or typed by lay people who are probably educationally or grammatically challenged and who think that would of is what they’re “hearing,” because, unfortunately, the correct would’ve sounds virtually identical to it. (The schwa vowel sound in the last syllable of the contraction, ’ve, is usually an unstressed schwa; the schwa vowel sound in the word of is usually a stressed schwa. However, native speakers can barely distinguish any difference between these two sounds: their difference is miniscule; they’re virtually identical.) Since this error is not a spoken one, then, it does not merit an orthographic representation in written English. Therefore, such inclusions in dialogue constitute invalid use of eye dialect. In short, they’re eyesores, and they do not belong in a book, period. For a second example, the Spanish word que sometimes requires an accent mark—as in qué—and sometimes it should not have an accent mark, depending on context and certain usage rules. Nichols is all over the board on this one, although he does manage to get it right once in a while.

You get the picture. There is way too much sloppiness in The Milagro Beanfield War, so the editor in me couldn’t stand it. I refuse to finish this book; I made it through about one hundred seventy of about four hundred fifty pages. What a shame! This novel could’ve—(See? It’s could’ve, not could of.)—been a real winner: it has the potential to be a riveting, original story. And while the author does competently handle the more technical and political aspects of water rights and the like—that part of the novel is well-researched—there are too many mistakes for me. Take my advice: skip the book and watch the movie instead. It’s very well done and the music is awesome. ( )
  brian5764 | Feb 7, 2013 |
Reminiscent of a Russian-style epic - but set in New Mexico. Nichols has an undeniable sense for the character of the Southwest. But a book about everyday existence must allow that existence to transcend mundaneness, and Nichols too often instead uses characters as punching bags for his humor - with a few exceptions, whose strength makes their absence in the rest of the book felt all the more strongly. ( )
  Audacity88 | Jul 2, 2011 |
This novel is the first episode of Nichols' 'New Mexico Trilogy.' Reminiscent of the power and humor of Steinbeck's Cannery Row, this is a vivid, human portrayal of a downtrodden Hispanic - - one man who takes a stand for his individual rights and a democratic chance at improving life. The results are hilarious and unforgettable. lj ( )
  eduscapes | Apr 24, 2011 |
The Milagro Beanfield War, by John Nichols, is an engaging and fun read. The eccentric characters are remarkably well-drawn and come to life in this first installment of Nichols' New Mexico Trilogy. It really made me curious about his other work, especially since the author admits that he's rather sick of Milagro and regrets being known for this particular book, not that he's looking a gift horse in the mouth, or anything.

The author's afterward makes it obvious that he's an intriguing character himself! Nichols can be a bit long-winded in parts, while he's having too much fun with his descriptions and metaphors, but that's part of the comedy of the book. At times, he probably felt the wind rushing by the words as he wrote, as strong as the wind of Pacheco's pig. Now, that's an eccentric character: Pancheco, the old man who is so lonely that his 300 pound sow just happens to keep getting loose so that he has to run after it, perchance to have a conversation with whomever the pig is terrorizing at the moment. This is funny stuff.

But then, it also deals with topics that are not funny at all. For instance, this story takes place in the early 1970's, yet these people are still speaking most Spanish, living in shocking poverty, and are being abused by the more affluent populations around them. At the center of this novel is a man named Joe (or Jose) Mondragon, who has made the random decision to irrigate his father's old beanfield, even though he no longer has irrigation rights for this little (less than one acre) piece of land. This one act is more symbolic and much more threatening than Joe ever imagined. His people were once subsistance farmers with a rich cultural heritage, but slowly lost water rights to the bigger interests around them and were unable to fight back out of ignorance; the older generations were illiterate and certainly had no awareness of politics. Meanwhile, this little town is losing many of its young men forever in Vietnam, a most cruel irony.

Milagro is a fictional town, but Nichols based this novel very much on what was happening at the time around Taos, New Mexico. The novel was probably inspired by anger, but it doesn't sound belligerant. And the characters may seem ridiculous at times, but they are treated lovingly. Even though I think Joe Mondragon is a bit of a jerk, I also think he's a good guy, underneath that. Charley Bloom, Mondragon's scared and ambivalent lawyer, has lots of warts and issues, but I liked him, anyway. (He should get counseling, though.) And I'm afraid that the author himself might have been the model for Bloom. (I hope he feels better.)

There was so much I had in my mind to say about this book, but it would be too much. Suffice it to say, this is a good, different, and intriguing read. Thumbs up! ( )
1 vote actonbell | Sep 19, 2010 |
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If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Yet if I am for myself only, what am I?
~ Hillel
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Many people in the Miracle Valley had theories about why Joe Mondragón did it.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805063749, Paperback)

Joe Mondragon, a feisty hustler with a talent for trouble, slammed his battered pickup to a stop, tugged on his gumboots, and marched into the arid patch of ground. Carefully (and also illegally), he tapped into the main irrigation channel. And so began-though few knew it at the time-the Milagro beanfield war. But like everything else in the dirt-poor town of Milagro, it would be a patchwork war, fought more by tactical retreats than by battlefield victories. Gradually, the small farmers and sheepmen begin to rally to Joe's beanfield as the symbol of their lost rights and their lost lands. And downstate in the capital, the Anglo water barons and power brokers huddle in urgent conference, intent on destroying that symbol before it destroys their multimillion-dollar land-development schemes. The tale of Milagro's rising is wildly comic and lovingly ter, a vivid portrayal of a town that, half-stumbling and partly prodded, gropes its way toward its own stubborn salvation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:44 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Joe Mondragon, 36, is a feisty hustler with a talent for trouble who slams his battered pickup to a stop, tugs on his gumboots, and marches into an arid patch of ground. Then, illegally, he taps into the main irrigation channel--and so begins Nichols's classic tale of the little guy against the big guy.… (more)

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