RIVER OF TRAPS by William deBuys and Alex Harris

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With Alex Harris

Pulitzer Prize Finalist — General Nonfiction
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year Winner
Evans Biography Award


New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains are a place where two cultures — Hispanic and Anglo — meet. They’re also the place where three men meet: William deBuys, a young writer; Alex Harris, a young photographer; and Jacobo Romero, an old farmer. When Harris and deBuys move to New Mexico in the 1970s, Romero is the neighbor who befriends them and becomes their teacher. With the tools of simple labor — shovel and axe, irony and humor — he shows them how to survive, even flourish, in their isolated village. A remarkable look at modern life in the mountains, RIVER OF TRAPS also magically evokes the now-vanished world in which Romero tended flocks on frontier ranges and absorbed the values of a society untouched by cash or Anglo America. His memories and wisdom, shared without sentimentality, permeate this absorbing story of three men and the place that forever shaped their lives.

  • The canted juniper lay across the horse's shoulder, and where Tomas would cut it, horseflesh was separate from wood by a gap of an inch, maybe two. Tomas kneeled in the mud of the ditchbank and began to cut. The horse recoiled, eyes bulging, nostrils flared, and strained away from the snarling saw.

    The saw bit into the wood, flashing sparks where it struck bits of gravel in the bark. The wood was hard, the chain dull, and smoke and steam rose from the kerf. A stripe of sawdust and black chain oil spat out across the shoulder of the horse. I stood on the bank and leaned above the horse to hold the stump from binding or falling. The saw screamed at full throttle. I looked at Jacobo at the edge of the light. His toothless jaws were clenched.

    The horse no doubt felt the heat of the saw and the wind of its whirring chain. It shuddered without stopping, and its tremors grew wilder and more violent. I feared that it might convulse into the path of the teeth.

    But Tomas never wavered. His big hands pressed the saw to its work, and at last I felt the trunk take on weight and lean from the stump. It came free in my hand and I lobbed it into the darkness. Tomas killed the saw. Each of us stepped back and took a breath together. We did not speak but stood listening to the tremulous panting of the horse, which now quaked louder than the rumble of the truck.

    "A ver, Jacobo," said Tomas, "let's see now."

    Wordlessly Jacobo picked the end of the lead rope out of the mud. The horse shook its head as the old man began to pull.

    Tomas also took hold and pulled together with Jacobo. The horse laid back his ears, eyes wide, and groaned as the men put their weight to the rope. The horse's front hooves clawed the bank as it sought to right itself and move its weight atop its legs. But the horse's strength was gone, and its hindquarters did not budge. The horse sank back against the rope, staring at us.

    * * *

    The English Jacobo used broke every rule of grammar and invented some rules of its own. One of his most confusing habits was to reverse the gender of third person pronouns. In Jacobo's stories "he" commonly became "she" and "her" became "his" so that you never quite knew if the horse he spoke of belonged to a woman who had a gelding or a man who kept a mare. The matter was rendered more difficult by the fact that the reversal of genders was inconsistent. Cows were nearly always she, but mares, bitches, and women were frequently he, and inanimate things, like horseshoes, cars, and fence posts, might take on either gender, or both.

    Eventually Jacobo learned English in the sheep camps of Utah and Wyoming. Although he may have failed to absorb some of its grammar, he had a gift for expression, and his use of the language was crisp, sharp-edged, even poetic:

    "Was a man had a dog to herd the cows. She tell 'em, "bite the cows, bite 'em," and that dog sure bite the ankles, move the cows to milking or back to pasture, wherever the man want them to go. Then the dog die and the man don't get another. But the man still go behind the cows and say, same way she used to say to the dog, "bite the cows, bite 'em." And those cows sure step along pretty good, just like the dog was there."

    * * *

    The whip had unraveled with use, its leathers repeatedly breaking. In some instances Jacobo repaired the break by soaking the ends in water and joining them in a shrunken knot. Other times, he discarded the frayed leather and spliced in whatever was at hand-lamp cord, baling wire, shoe laces. He banded additional wire and patches of leather around the deteriorating handle and layered them over with thick strips of electrical tape. In the end the thing looked less like a whip than the fetish of a crazed electrician.

  • "Anyone who wishes to know [Northern New Mexico] can skip the galleries full of pink howling coyotes, stay home and read an exceptional documentary book, RIVER OF TRAPS." —Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times Book Review

    "...a beautiful tribute to a man and his work." —New York Review of Books

    "On a raft of perfectly crafted sentences, the book floats through the reader's mind, buoyant and serene. DeBuys never exaggerates or sounds an awkward note, whether in tone or detail. The equilibrium of the prose reflects a genuine empathy with the subject matter ... The book should be admired and read for a long time to come." —Kansas City Star

    "RIVER OF TRAPS forms an irresistibly engaging story ... deBuys (is) a storyteller of poetic breadth with a discerning eye for subtle, sensitive associations." —The Nation

    "RIVER OF TRAPS is unlike any other book I know. In its brilliant verbal and photographic portrait of a complicated "simple" man and his place in the world, it achieves an astounding richness and depth. Yet it never strays from the clear straight lines of human story — a man lives a hard good life and dies; two friends recall him. The reader who won't be moved and instructed is likely far past human reach; Tolstoy would have loved and honored it." —Reynolds Price