I am always on the lookout for books set in Southern Arizona, hoping to find something that will provide me a model for future writing efforts. I had high hopes for this book when I purchased it.
Midnight Cactus, by Bella Pollen
Ms. Pollen has an excellent idea for a story—the plot arc works well and the pacing, while slow at times, makes it a pretty engaging story. It is not, however, a book someone who actually lives in Southern Arizona would enjoy.
When I first encountered faulty descriptions of the Southern Arizona landscape, I chalked it up to sloppy editing. Had the errors been rare, I might have been forgiving. But ultimately, it became clear that neither Ms. Pollen nor her editors and informants know much at all about the region, its climate, its geography, or its history.
First, the main character, Mrs. Coleman, and her children arrive in Phoenix on New Year’s Eve, 2002, a miserably cold night with the temperature at ten degrees above zero. Not very likely in the Sonoran Desert. During our coldest winters, it is rarely below the twenties overnight.
Pollen’s ghost town setting, just north of the Mexican border, is realistic enough even though the Patagonia Mountains are probably not high enough to have “snow capped peaks;” they may get a dusting of snow at times, but we’d hardly describe them in the same terms as the Himalayas. Okay, no big deal, but when she says that Mrs. Coleman nearly hit an elk on one of her first drives out of the ghost town, it really strains belief. No elk in Southern Arizona—only in the Northern and Eastern Arizona mountains above the Mogollon Rim, a long way from the Mexican border.
The children in the story are terrorized by their new school mates with stories of “Man Corn” and cannibalistic Anasazi whose remains are still in the caves nearby. While anthropologists and archaeologists disagree on whether or not tales of Anasazi cannibalism are based in sound archaeology, youngsters in a rural Southern Arizona school are unlikely to be that familiar with the archaeological history of the state. They might have some knowledge of prehistoric Hohokam culture, since the local Tohono O’odham claim descendancy from it. However, the prehistoric Anasazi did not live in Southern Arizona. They were in the far northeast corner of the state. There has been no anthropological speculation that the Hohokam engaged in cannibalism, and the term “Man Corn” is specific to Anasazi speculation.
Finally, she portrays Tucson as a backward, frightening wilderness town where the only place to shop is a Wal-Mart and the only person available to ask directions from is a drunk on the street. Her character would have driven past convenience stores and drug stores on virtually every street corner and should have had no trouble getting back on the freeway, since it’s very accessible. And why on earth did she invent a Shell Refinery for her character to drive through to get lost on the Tohono O’odham reservation? WHAT???? An OIL REFINERY???!! In Tucson???!! On the Rez? The refinery seemed to be invented as a replacement for the Tucson Mountains, through which she would have to drive from her defined location to get to the reservation unless she took the freeway (which she would have crossed). But then she wouldn’t have been lost if she had found the freeway. It’s so nonsensical, one wonders why she didn’t just invent a fictional near-the-border town.
Even her portrayal of Nogales is lacking. First of all, it is, in fact, a city that straddles the border, part in Arizona and part in Mexico. In the character’s mad rush to get her daughter to a doctor, she would have actually driven past the hospital in Nogales, Arizona, before crossing the border to desperately search for a farmacia where she might get medical assistance.
To her credit, Pollen does a reasonably good job portraying the desperation of Mexican immigrants risking everything to cross the border, the nobility of the humanitarians who try to ease their suffering, and the bigotry of so-called militiamen who see violence as the only solution to the immigration problems on the border. Although some of the minor characters are stereotypical, most of her main characters are complex, honorable, and believable.
The Sonoran Desert is a “beautiful, cruel country,” as Eva Wilbur-Cruce said. It is a complex environment and it deserves the respect of those who would set their stories in its rugged beauty. It is a shame that Pollen did not set her story in the real Sonoran Desert, choosing instead one that was distorted by her imagination, and lacking any sense of geographical or cultural reality. It could have been a good story with important issues to explore.
Note: Bella Pollen addresses criticism of some of the errors in her book at http://goingtopieces.blogspot.com/2007/06/midnight-cactus.html