By Caroline K Gorman
The Ghost of Milagro Creek
By Melanie Sumner
The Ghost of Milagro Creek made its way to me with a Post-it note across the front that read "important local writer." It struck me that all writers are important to wherever it is they can be considered "local." Community pride wants to boast that one of our own has made it and personal vainglory wants the satisfaction of knowing all the common details about someone who has succeeded. And then there's always the simple delight inherent in recognizing familiar places in the pages of books.
So there are many good, respectable reasons for considering an author to be important merely because of origin. However, the interesting thing about this "important local writer" is that Melanie Sumner isn't. She lived in New Mexico for three years, from 1998 to 2001. And then she moved away. But she is happy to borrow Taos' colorful atmosphere as a setting for her book.
Unfortunately, the type of book which Sumner wrote depends very greatly on her status as a genuine local author. It is a crime novel with a tired premise involving a love triangle, childhood friends and murder. This book depends heavily on setting and characters in order to be interesting. The setting is "the barrio in Taos,"and the narrator is Ignacia, a Jicarillo Apache who is necessarily considered "a witch" by her neighbors, and two boys, Mister and Tomas. Regarding setting—well, I'll leave that to people who are actually local to Taos to decide.
As for the characters, they are passable. Certainly the voice of Ignacia is strong, even if her character as a "witch" is a little stale. Unfortunately, a gimmick early on mars the narrator's voice; Ignacia dies and proceeds to narrate for a few chapters. After that, Ignacia's voice becomes difficult to discern, though she is in theory still narrating. Maybe the problem is that after narrating from within a coffin, not much else can be interesting.
The Ghost of Milagro Creek is certainly readable, as long as you don't get stuck on details like the insertion of random Spanish words. (The author says she met a "tree-cutter from Belize" in Rome who helped her insert some Spanish words. She selects the words in as thoughtful a manner as someone adding pepper to a dish in an attempt to spice it up.) I believe one of the Hispanicized words was "des." In my many years living on the border, I have yet to hear someone say "des" when the two words on either side were in English.
But back to readability: It's readable. The timeline is a little all confusing in the beginning, but it straightens out. As the story of a passion and a crime, it is interesting. Unfortunately, the constant presence of distractions makes it difficult to focus on the plot. For example, the center of the love triangle is described as wearing ‘high heels, tight bell-bottoms, and some sort of a bra for a shirt.” (p.1-2). When I read this, I thought the scene was taking place in the 70s, although apparently it's 1995. This jolted me a little out of the narrative flow; I had to go back a confirm what the year actually was. Little things like this, including slang that was presumably supposed to be representative of the 1995 barrio scene, just made me either cringe or question my own sense of space and time.
However, the sentences that aren't dialogue demonstrate very clearly that Sumner has been well-trained. The grammar is never painful, and there is a love of combining details about the corrosion of man-made things with facets of the New Mexico landscape. She is mercifully short and simple with the grand emotions of the characters. And there is always the joy of seeing places which you know intimately, but which are unknown to the wider world, appear in print.