My Mother’s Books, Part 2: What I Learned From The Milagro Beanfield War
At the beginning of this year, I made a resolution to read my mother’s books. I knew from the get-go that this was a problematic resolution because, first of all, I’m not great about sticking to New Year’s resolutions, and secondly, the whole point of this exercise might very well be a fruitless one; I am looking for old clues about my mother in the tiny library she left behind. But I believe you’ve got to work with the tools you’re given, and what I have at my disposal are some paperbacks that my mother kept for more than forty years, so I am searching for clues to who she was in their pages.
I started this resolution of mine by reading my mother’s copy of The Milagro Beanfield War, by John Nichols. I was guessing that she had been drawn to this book because her own parents were migrant farmers, and she’d grown up in field worker’s shacks in her early years; I thought that would explain why this 1974 first edition paperback always lived on her bookshelf. I dove in, having all kinds of nostalgic feelings about holding her book and turning the very pages that she had turned forty years ago.
Here’s what I discovered about my mother in this book: she only read as far as page 65. She folded the top corner of the page to mark her place, and the rest of the novel remained pristinely unread. And yet it sat on her shelf for four decades, as if she intended to finish it someday. One of the hazards of digging around in the past is that you sometimes find out things you already knew. My mother’s relationship with this novel is hauntingly similar to her relationship with me—she quit reading early on, long before she got to the good part, and maybe she always meant to pick the book up again someday in the future, but she never got around to it.
My mother’s copy of The Milagro Beanfield Wars isn’t in such good shape now, having ridden around in my book bag for the last five months, tumbling about with my lunch, being read in snippets on the city bus and in stolen bits of time while I waited for appointments. For the first time in forty years, this completely wonderful novel has been read from cover to cover, and now it looks well loved.
Throughout the reading, I kept finding myself saying to the universe, “Mama, you should have finished this book! It’s so good! You missed out.” I think she would have loved the rich texture of the storytelling, and appreciated the grit and complexity of the people of Milagro. She would have sympathized with the challenges facing the farmers in northern New Mexico and celebrated the fact that one small act of defiance—tapping into an irrigation channel to water a bean field—could change everything for a people. But of course therein lies the rub; there were a great number of things my mother should have stuck with long enough to see how they turned out. She would have been a happier woman in the end, if she had.
I have a little stone plaque that says, In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own. I suppose that’s what this quest to read my mother’s books is really about. But if, once it’s all said and done, I just end up getting to read more books as wonderful as The Milagro Beanfield War, then it will have been a worthwhile effort.