Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations, UNESCO, Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of fifty-five, then went on to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. Davis has written a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and is working on a memoir of Haiti. Here she reviews a collection of New Mexico stories by Martha Egan (Venezuela 1967–69).
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
The themes of Martha Egan’s stories are broken-down vehicles (la ranfla means jalopy), unlikely destinations (Los Lopez, population 58), women who follow their dreams (a veterinarian, a silversmith) and find dream men (educated cowboys). The stories are played out against the backdrop of high desert plains and mesas, whose shifting colors mesmerized Georgia O’Keffe, flatlands like “dry toast,” mountain pine forests, adobe villages and Navajo pueblos where ancient culture survives.
There are good guys and bad guys and the good guys win in ironic story twists, such as in the lead story, “La Ranfla,” when a ruthless mechanic tries to extort $600 from migrant Mexicans for fixing a truck he had just sold them, but the wily Mexicans abscond with the troco during the night and disappear across the border.
Egan’s involvement with local Navajos is intimate, respectful and spiritual. She writes about a soul healing ceremony and sweat lodge, of finding a perfect arrowhead and she describes the people of the pueblo in vivid portraits.
Egan’s stories are full of tough humor. In “Guapo,” Rosalia’s dream husband is killed in a road accident and on the day of his funeral, his sorrowful dog, Guapo, runs in front of a car, and is buried in his master’s grave. Rosalia later sits with her two children and tells them that Guapo went to heaven to be with their father, adding under her breath, “The bastards!”
Egan’s writing style is rich in original metaphors: In “Carnales” deputies investigating a community disturbance stand aside for local politicos, eyeing them “. . . intently out of the corners of their eyes like cats monitoring a birdbath,” while a man holds a rifle pointing downward “. . . paired to his left leg like an orthopedic brace.”
Every short story begins in the present, but Egan uses an interesting device, deftly surprising the reader into the future by a double space between paragraphs that represents a time bridge.
Egan self-publishes from her own Papalote Press and the presentation is impressive, with appealing packaging. Most important, however, the book is well edited. (She also had the fortuitous guidance of Bob Schacochis, an outstanding RPCV writer.) She employs a free-lance publicist who puts together topnotch flyers, fact sheets and interviews.
Egan is a gifted story-teller and, if I had one criticism, it would be that she makes me jealous of her life in New Mexico.