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HFC Editorial Review of "The Mesilla" by Mary Armstrong

Author Bio:

Mary, her husband Norman ‘Skip’ Bailey moved to the heart of one of the ‘Two Valleys’ in Las Cruces New Mexico from the Boston metro area in 2010. Their Cavachon child-dog, Java joined them in 2014. Mary’s journey to the release of “The Mesilla” in 2021 was the culmination of a fascination with the life and death of Colonel Albert J. Fountain and his young son. As she became more familiar with the area, she noticed a barely below the surface grating dislike between “The Two Valleys” and the effort to discover the root of this discord led her to “The Two Valleys Saga.”

Mary has diverse interests but has focused on historical fiction over the last ten years. Her writing is fast-moving, thought-provoking and with just enough wordsmithing to satisfy your artistic hankerings. Since retiring from a diverse career in various planning and design fields, she has devoted herself to writing, being a good spouse, serving her dog Java, and slipping away to the golf course when unchained to the desk.

When asked where her writing comes from, she replied, “I haven’t done it all and I may have done too much. Life is full of stories. All you have to do is live them.”

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Editorial Review:

When you travel alone, you need someone to talk to, and talking to your burro is better than talking to yourself, I suppose.

Sauntering over and settling down to a story of the Old West, in particular the area of the Mesilla Valley in the late 1800s, this one captivates the reader with a wide range of characters. First and foremost, we have Jesus Messi, the fictionalized nephew of the real-life Albert J. Fountain, a boy with his sights set on a better future over the border with his New Mexico relatives. And then you have Albert J. Fountain. Fountain’s claim to fame spans decades during the time when New Mexico’s foundation quaked through political wranglings, cattle rustling bandits, and the gunslinging wild west. The introduction of Jesus, a wide-eyed young boy on the verge of manhood, trudging across the Two Valleys to live with his uncle and his uncle’s family gives us a insight into his innocence against the stark vastness of New Mexico and the transformation of the state and how it affects this young boy.

Right from the start, you get a sense of Jesus’ character, a tender-hearted soul whose connection to his burro leaves you teary-eyed when Jesus is attacked by inhumane bandits. But, Jesus trudges onward despite this first lesson, and he is enveloped into the Fountain family right from the start. Sent by his mother, who is Fountain’s wife’s sister, to make something of himself, far from his home near the Rio Bravo in Mexico.

And he is ‘smart as a whip’, as he begins learning from Fountain, who he affectionately calls ‘Zio’. While the narrative is Jesus’s story, it is also the story of Albert Fountain as his life lessons and tales become instructive tools for Jesus. And some of the tales, such as Zio telling him about the Indian wars grows from one summarized paragraph by Zio’s son Jacky to a winding tale stretching for two more chapters. While lengthy, it does provide the reader with some interesting background for Albert Fountain, rounding him out as a character.

Not knowing much about this history of New Mexico, these stories will lead you to want to know more, especially learning that this Mesilla resident was a prominent lawyer and took on the case of ‘Billy the Kid’, and as Ms Armstrong’s story progresses, the case of ‘Bronco Sue’ who wiled her way through the West leaving bullet holes and dead husbands along the way.

The depiction of the trial and the case, with Fountain as Sue’s lead attorney and Jesus as a note-taking apprentice (learning all he can while watching and listening), is quite captivating... not to mention the enveloping warmth, the banter and comraderie, and the practical jokes played within the Fountain family.

I’ve been called all those names, but I’ve never been anyone but me... I’ve always been just plain ol’ Sue.” - she is far from a plain ol Sue!

Jesus’s story and the eventual disappearance of his uncle in 1896, along with Fountain’s eight-year-old son, is inextricably entwined, and you see his uncle through his nephew’s innocent eyes. Each story told by Zio and each event experienced by Jesus pushes him forward into manhood. The shady associates that Fountain had, or those who didn’t like some of his choices, as well as some of the events in the man’s life (which are relayed with astute historical accuracy and language of the era), make him a very renowned figure, one whose actions did not sit well with many who might have wanted to see him dead. As you get to know Jesus, you are left wondering what impact this will have on the boy (since history shows us that Fountain dies and the case is never solved), and leaves you, as the reader, compelled to continue the story into Ms Armstrong’s next book.

Chuy, everything on this earth eventually changes into something else. Often that change happens so other living things can flourish. We may not live forever, but our essence does because everything on earth stays here in one form or another. È il circolo della vita.”

The merging of historical accounts and fictional imaginings are woven seamlessly like a skilled storytelling weaver might do, so much so that you don’t really know which is which, especially with characters such as Bronco Sue whose story is as wild as any Western out there, AND is told in a way unlike any story out there today. The detail in the story reveals the depth of Ms Armstrong’s research, packing the pages with interesting New Mexican history, and using this young boy as the purveyor even if as a character he felt a smidge overshadowed in the story by his renowned uncle. But, for anyone who loves Western Historicals, this is a good book to read in a quiet afternoon, or for anyone wanting to delve into the sub-genre, this is a good place to start.

Lastly, I have to give kudos to Ms Armstong’s phrasing and choice of words throughout the narrative, especially when describing the scenery, the world-building part of her novel – the imagery felt so authentic and genuinely reflected the author’s love of the area.

...floodplains turned arid and biscuity-brown.”

We crested the Pass; the horizon shifted to over one hundred miles away and we gained some sunlight. Still, the sky was losing its deep blue, trending whiter with hints of fushcia pink on the faces and darker blues on the backs of the few clouds to the west. Despite the seemingly alarming speed at which the sun was dropping, we stopped, and I slid off Facile to take in the high desert’s always magical sunsets.... I leaned forward, forearm to knee, and gazed at the rocky range stretching due south, awash in an intensifying, then diminishing, coral hue.

“The Mesilla” by Mary Armstrong receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company.


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