When I first began reading Carmen Baca’s new book Cuentos del Cañón, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I have spent some time in the States - eight months in Los Angeles many years ago, plus visits to Florida and New York - but the only visions that I have had of the Mid West are from old Westerns. My father relished those films, usually featuring burning hot deserts, barren mountains and dusty old settlements. Unless one visits places first-hand, one tends to be stuck with the stereotypes presented to one by the culture into which one is born. Thus, if someone had said ‘New Mexico’ to me, the first images would have been of emptiness, heat and struggle.
Carmen’s book quickly corrected all that by presenting an entirely different vista. Though the stories are set near to the city of Las Vegas - with its own culture-conjured images of flashing hotels and sensuous modern luxuries - they quickly welcome you into a totally unexpected world: in these stories, we meet communities, warm-hearted individuals, time-honoured traditions and rituals, and a rural piety which feels as though it is a part of its surroundings.
They are not all ‘comfortable’ tales, though - the religious devotion which underpins them leads the reader onto the fringes of what we consider to be ‘reality’, and we almost immediately encounter strangeness, the supernatural and magic. While keeping us grounded in the homeliness of the places she takes us to, Baca also presents us with things that have no rational explanation, and keeps us wondering all the way to the end of this charming collection.
There is a kind of duty about this book - a duty to keep alive a world through its stories and legends which the modern world may be encroaching on a little too much as the century goes on. It succeeds in its duty, and the reader is left with a curiosity about and compassion for the places and people in the tales which linger on after one has put the book down. Get the book and you will have your eyes opened to a part of the world which is both cosy and remote, warm and chilling at the same time.