I had put off reading Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses" for years, having picked it up when it first came out in paperback in 1993. But a Colorado vacation seemed a perfect time to take it up again. There's something satisfying about reading a book in sync with the locale where I happen to be.
Part of the book's appeal is simply that it is an adventure story, the tale of three young men -- boys, really -- who set off on horseback from west Texas in the late 1940s, seeking to recapture in Mexico a way of life fast disappearing north of the border. Instead they encounter a world so full of contradictions it destroys one of them, and nearly so the other two.
The Mexico McCarthy describes is a place of unspeakable cruelty, rigid convention and misplaced honor. It is a place where men can land in jail simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and where obtaining justice depends on whom you know, not what you've done.
But it is also a country where the young men find incredible generosity and kindness -- poor Mexicans who are willing to share their meager food and abodes with strangers, even to give them, literally, the shirts off their backs. McCarthy's Mexicans are both villains and heroes, intellectuals and peasants.
But in the end, it isn't the adventure or the characters that makes this book so mesmerizing. It is McCarthy's ability to capture a sense of place.
The Southwest has for generations sparked the imagination of Americans. Even today, when skyscraper cities have sprung up on the plains where people make their living sitting at keyboards rather than on saddleback, the land itself remains wide-open, wild and vast.
The beauty of the land is stark, often harsh. There are few green, rolling hills, but jagged cliffs that jut out from the sage-covered brush, remnants of long-dead volcanoes, and earth the color of dried blood.
It does not look hospitable, which may be why it is so quintessentially American. Certainly in the early years, eking out a living in a land so arid made for an unimaginable challenge.
I think back on my own ancestors and wonder how they managed -- my father's family arriving more than 400 years ago in northern New Mexico from a similarly unforgiving landscape in Estremadura, Spain; my mother's family coming to Wyoming by wagon train from Missouri not long after the Civil War. Yet, like thousands of others, they tamed the land and recreated themselves.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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