The Ghost of Milagro Creek

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“The heat grew into a living thing. I felt all of us hunkering down and shrinking back to mother earth with our hearts racing toward each other. There was no relief except in prayer.”

Melanie Sumner’s The Ghost of Milagro Creek is a novel of New Mexico, a state and state-of-mind close to my heart. The author is from Georgia, but not so long ago she lived in the place she writes about. Like a lot of westerners, I’m used to mis-readings (or more accurately, mis-writings) of my place, and so start a book like Sumner’s ready to raise hell over inconsistencies, flaws, gaps, even lies. However, Milagro Creek is spot-on; Sumner writes about New Mexico with a quiet, comforting authority. I did not doubt her, or doubt her rendering of the place, her characters, the story. So I changed my tack: A writer can come to know a place from the outside-in, and get it right. It’s what writers do best.

The novel centers on the life of Mister Romero, who is in mourning following the death of Ignacia Vigil Romero, his Jicarilla Apache grandmother. Ignacia, also called Abuela (grandmother), is a curandera, a healer—or, to some, a witch. She raises Mister alongside Tomás, his best friend, making them more like brothers. Bound by the heart, the young men are divided by a girl, Rocky, an evocative gringa from South Carolina with a penchant for poetry. The story is set in the barrio of Taos, a community of Hispanics, American Indians, and neighboring whites. The diversity and poverty of the area urges the story on, toward a suicide pact that turns to murder.

Now on to what Sumner gets right. As a life-long river runner (canoes, drift boats, round rafts, and catarafts), I’m overly sensitive to renderings of river journeys that don’t ring true. During the summer of 1999, Mister and Tomás go to work for a Rio Grande outfitter named Cousin Bones. First off, his name is just the sort of tag you find among old river dogs, the authentic and honorable, as well as the self-absorbed and intolerable. Well done. Then, listen to this brother talk. He knows rivers and rapids, knows how a boat responds in such waters, knows what a boatman needs to do and when he needs to do it. Here, Cousin Bones gives Mister and Tomás the lowdown on an approaching rapid:

”First we’re going to hit a dicey little S-turn slot con consecuencias. You’ll get your ears wet and pop up in the Hell Hole. A six-foot boof spanks you to the middle of a seam created by recirculation from a large boulder that lies river center. Say a prayer.

I love the detail here, the close reading of the rapid, the understanding that sometimes all a boatman can do is surrender to the river and the river gods by invocation of a prayer. Nice stuff. And who doesn’t want a little warning before getting spanked to the middle of a seam?

Another word of praise: I taught for a year on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, and find Sumner’s rendering of Mr. Cisneros’s classroom authentic, believable, and funny. No small feat. When Rocky enters the room, the boys go all wonky:

“Yowza,” whispered Mister.

“S’up hoochie pants!” called Tomás.

“Class,” said Mr. Cisneros. “Let’s all quiet down now.” […]

“Oooh, she not from da barrio. She from Santa.”

“She punk you off, man,” said a guy named Ed. “You stanko to Santa-Girl.”

Uh huh. It was just like that for me, too. Again and again, page after page, I have no doubt that Sumner did her homework, and that she lived close to the bone in New Mexico.

The novel itself moves between two time frames: before Abuela’s death and after. It also moves between points of view: first person and third person. The first-person narrator is Abuela, telling the story from some other place, moving back and forth across the border between this world and that. Abuela is part of Mister’s thoughts and dreams, as Mister often is of hers, despite the fact that she’s dead. This is not the first novel to build a foundation on a dead narrator, but such a design never fails to unhinge, to unsettle, to agitate. In Milagro Creek, the reader enters a world of bending light and time, a world where Hamlet’s assertion is bedrock: “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The present-time of the novel is Easter, 2001, with the suicide/murder unfolding on the evening of Holy Thursday; its past is the early to mid-1990s. It seems the story will proceed in this way, vacillating between the two, until, about half-way in, this pattern shifts to a series of police reports, interviews, and portraits of places, punctuated by the progress of Easter. I found the loss of the established pattern jarring, even a bit off-putting, but also part of how the novel is geared. (Read the work of American Indian writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, and Luci Tapahonso to find similar management of time). If Abuela is the “ghost of Milagro Creek,” (milagro is Spanish for “miracle”), then Sumner’s novel, too, is a little miracle for the way it bridges and leads and leaps, the way it frustrates and calms and punishes the reader who goes willingly over these stepping stones.

These later chapters take on a life of their own. They stand out, even work independently, as short stories, a quality which might be a strength or a weakness. For example, one chapter is narrated by Ignacia’s boyfriend, Layton Scroggins, known as Chief. He is a delightful character, with a likeable mischievousness, a thirst for experience, a belief in alternate realms. Here he reports to the Taos County Sheriff’s Department, via fax, the story of leading a sweat lodge ceremony:

The heat grew into a living thing. Across from me on the south wall, I could hear Karen’s fingers scrabbling in the quilt, trying to push back the edge to find the cool dirt underneath. I was soaked to the skin, but my nose hairs got so hot and dry, I was afraid I might blow fire. In the darkness, I felt all of us hunkering down and shrinking back to mother earth with our hearts racing toward each other. There was no relief except in prayer.

When I lived in California a few years ago, I regularly attended sweats at my Cherokee neighbor’s house. This, I can tell you, is how it was. I love this moment in the heat of the lodge when the great mystery so overwhelms that the characters bow down in prayer, allowing, at last, an authentic humility. If I can have only one gift from Sumner’s novel, I’ll take this one.

The Ghost of Milagro Creek is slow to begin but picks up after the suicide/murder. I wonder if the novel doesn’t spend too much time establishing context, balanced between the before and after, before getting to the crucial events. I wanted this, anyway. But that’s not much. I found this novel worth my time, and so feel it will be worth yours, especially if you have an interest in New Mexico, in American Indian cosmology, in narrative structure and approaches, in good storytelling.

And if you’re looking for practical advice, if you’re looking to repair something between you and your partner, you might profit by what Rocky demands of Tomás, her list of “Things You Have to Do If You Want to Hook Up with Me Again.” Love is conditional, after all. Admit it. As both Tomás and Mister are in love with Rocky, you’ll want to read the novel to find out who gets the girl, who, in the end, meets her list of conditions, which read like those holy commandments brought down from the mount:

1. Cut your toenails.

2. Quit drinking.

3. Go back to school.

4. Foreplay.

5. Quit trying to kill people just because they’re different from you.

Kurt Caswell is the author or two books: An Inside Passage, for which he won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize; and In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation. He teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. More from this author →