As he tells us in the Acknowledgements, Gene Guerin’s first novel “is based on forty handwritten pages of reminiscences which my mother, Margaret Ortega Guerin, committed to a spiral notebook.” Guerin has transformed his mother’s memories into a story of determination and heartbreak as the hopes and ambitions of the main character, Margarita Zamora Galván, are repeatedly raised and dashed by her difficult life in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Born in a lumber camp in 1913 and raised like a princess in her grandparents’ hacienda, Margarita decides early she must leave New Mexico. But despite her dreams, she ends up married to a butcher and living out her years as a wife and mother back where she began. To escape from Las Vegas as his mother’s surrogate, her youngest son Michael becomes a priest and an alcoholic and disgraces himself in the process.
Guerin shows us how the West was still being won in the boom-and-bust towns like Las Vegas as late as the 1950s. Most interesting of all is the short section when Margarita herself takes over the narration from Michael. As a narrator, Michael is a romantic, softening the edges of his mother’s story with clear affection for her. Though in her youth Margarita shared his romantic optimism, in middle age her life is “a series of small triumphs dotted across a desert of insignificance—as is only proper for a woman of my station.” Though I can clearly hear Margaret telling her son that her story is not worth writing, it is the tension between these views that propels the novel from narrow biography, through the influenza pandemic of 1918, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the Great Depression, and World War II, to become the iconic story of the 20th century for New Mexico’s poorest citizens.