Full disclosure: I was given a free PDF copy of this book by Books Forward in exchange for an honest review.
Within the last few years, there has been more attention on books written by authors of color. These often reveal perspectives that’s normally not highlighted in the mainstream, and they can find ways to connect with lots of readers. An example of this is Valley of Shadows by Rudy Ruiz – a good recontextualization Hero’s Journey story with a Mexican protagonist in 1883 Mexico/Texas.
Valley of Shadows is a visionary neo-Western blend of magical realism, mystery, and horror, and it explores the dark past of injustice, isolation, and suffering along the US-Mexico border. In 1883 West Texas, after the Rio Grande shifted course, the Mexican city of Olvido gets stranded on the northern side of the new border between the US and Mexico border. When a series of mysterious and horrific crimes occur in the divided town, a Mexican lawman is lured out of retirement to restore order and to save the lives of abducted children. In the face of skeptics and hostile Anglo settlers, Solitario Cisneros struggles to overcome not only the evil forces in the area, but also his own inner demons. He is burdened by a mystical curse that has guided his lonely destiny, until Onawa, a gifted and beautiful Apache-Mexican seer, joins his mission and dares him to change the course of both their lives.
There were many things that I liked about this book. First off, I thought the characters were done well. I like Solitario as a character, for he’s smart, stoic, and good at what he does. Readers can easily see why he’s so reluctant to assist the town with solving the crimes as well as wants to be alone. He yearns to do the right thing in the name of honor even if it tears him apart from the people that he loves. He’s also battling some demons due to a curse that his grandmother placed on the male side of his family. In addition, I like Onawa, who is half Mexican and half Apache. She possesses supernatural abilities and assists Solitario. Even though her main motive is to be with him, she becomes more confident and figures out what she really wants after spending most of her life with her father away from her tribe. Furthermore, I want to give credit to Ruiz for including a diverse cast of white, Mexican, and indigenous people. This reflects the real makeup of Texas as opposed to what other stories that involve the US-Mexico border depict.
In addition, it does an effective job with addressing identity, injustice, and discrimination in this time period. With identity, the non-white characters often ruminate on who they are and where their homes are. This is true both physically with Mexicans discovering that Olvido has suddenly moved to the United States because of the shifting Rio Grande and mentally with Solitario wanting a place to be loved, but without being reminded of his past. The injustice aspect is highlighted when Onawa acknowledges how if Solitario as the new sheriff arrests a white person for a crime, then he would be considered racist by the Anglo settlers, but if he apprehends a Mexican person, then other Mexicans would assume that he’s selling out his own ethnicity. Moreover, racial discrimination is constantly acknowledged in a multitude of ways. For example, while Solitario investigates, the town gets so restless that some of the white men decide to round up the Mexican and Apache men and boys and shoot them in order to execute their own version of justice. Luckily, he thwarts this crime by playing his guitar and putting those would-be murderers to sleep. This all works because Ruiz – a son of Mexican immigrants – understands that identity, injustice, and discrimination surface in many ways.
Furthermore, I love the recurring theme of never truly being alone. While Solitario (good name for a guy who wants to be alone) wants to live by himself away from others, he’s constantly reminded of the people around him like his family and his deceased wife due to the curse. Even his friend and sidekick Elias (as a ghost) sticks by Solitario as the latter encounters the trials and tribulations of searching for the kids and the perpetrators.
One thing that I observed is that the book likes to pepper in various Spanish words and phrases. It gives it more authenticity. I imagined the Mexican characters speaking to each other in that language even when the text is in English. While it does help to know a little bit of Spanish, readers will most likely be able to figure out what they mean through the context.
While reading the novel, I also discovered that even though it’s nearly 500 pages, it moves at a brisk pace. Outside of Spanish words and phrases, Ruiz mostly avoids using jargon in the text. Moreover, the pacing matches the urgency of the situation. This is especially true in how Solitario genuinely wants to solve the crimes and prove himself to the white settlers in Olvido in his own way.
One final thing that I noticed while reading it is that it perfectly fits with the Hero’s Journey template popularized by Joseph Campbell. Solitario gets the call to help the town to solve the crimes as the new sheriff, but he refuses outright. However, he ends up searching for the abducted children with assistance from Onawa, who has supernatural abilities. He goes through some trials, meets with a woman who knows about Aztec culture, (the kidnappers and murderers use that civilization’s rituals to carry out their crimes) who assists him with the murders and kidnappings (Meeting with a Goddess), and has an atonement with the Father (which results in a great twist). And of course, he experiences death and rebirth. Even though it felt a little too neat, I feel that it was done that way, so readers could recognize the template in other stories like Star Wars. Valley of Shadows does an effective spin on the Hero’s Journey.
Finally, I want to point out that this might not be for everybody. There are some scenes, in which people are brutally murdered. For instance, its opening scene contains the first Olvido sheriff, his wife, and their eldest son getting murdered, and it’s pretty gory. Even I got squeamish at times. Additionally, some people might not like the talk about injustice and the plot being “woke,” thinking that’s too contemporary. I think it’s necessary because it feels natural to the story. Solitario faces plenty of bigoted Anglo settlers who feel entitled to many things like land in Olvido and being allowed to perform their own version of the law.All in all, Valley of Shadows by Rudy Ruiz is a good novel that features a diverse cast and acknowledges perspectives that aren’t usually recognized. Some people may be turned off by the gory bits or the talk of injustice, but the book is worth the read because it recontextualizes the Hero’s Journey into late 19th century Mexico/Texas, and it has very likable characters that readers would want to root for. I would recommend it for those who love westerns, horrors, and magic realism as well as want to read more titles by Latine authors. The book is out tomorrow, September 20, so get it at your local bookstore or library!
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