Between Earth and Sky by Karen Osborn

Mesas, large earthen tables scattered across the dry golden desert that spans over current day Texas, New Mexico and parts of Oklahoma recur again and again in this book. I’ve even begun to refer to these landforms as mesas instead of my usual ‘plateaus’ as we passed them during our drive through southwest New Mexico and eastern and central Texas. I’ve always been fascinated by them during our trips through New Mexico. Mountains are majestic as they are, with pointed tips, but mesas, they are perfect in their construction that science explains as a result of weathering and erosion.

I started reading this book during our drive through New Mexico and Texas, part of my read-ahead for my high schooler’s modified New Mexico history learning approach. She couldn’t bring herself to plow through the textbooks, and I didn’t have the heart to force her to, so I suggested she approach learning it through historical fiction. She readily agreed. However, upon searching for Young Adult historical fiction set in New Mexico, I came up disappointed. I then turned to adult historical fiction. There are many. I slumped in exhaustion. If I pre-read even the Young Adult novels, that means I have to pre-read the adult fiction even more! I didn’t look forward to reading historical fiction set in New Mexico. New Mexico, despite its beautiful and breathtaking landscape, didn’t really capture my fancy, as I feel it to be too mired in historical confusion for me personally. So when I picked up this book, it was with a sense of responsibility, not leisure.

Written in the format of letters, which I don’t really like in a novel, I had to plow through it for the first few chapters. Abigail Cronkin, from Virginia, travels to New Mexico with her husband and children in a wagon, after the civil war, because her husband, Clayton, wants to try out the mines in New Mexico. The other wagons with easterners are headed for California, and you could sense how she actually prefers to follow them than remain in New Mexico. But Clayton remains adamant in trying out his luck in the New Mexico mines. Abigail loses her son Josh during the journey, among other tragedies in her life. By now I was caught up in the book, letter format or not.

Abigail’s letters are written to her sister Maggie in Virginia, and apparently, her mother is truly not pleased with her decision to go traipsing off to the wild west when she could have lived a civil life back in the east. This conflict between Abigail and her mother emerges again and again in her letters. There were times where I agreed with her mother as Abigail unfolds the happenings in her life that are filled with hardships and difficulties. At some point in time, even Maggie, her own sister whom she is close to, judges her decision and ‘wild’ and ‘uncivilized’ ways where the structure of the society obviously lacks a lot of eastern and white society’s decorum. One would think that Abigail would take offense, and she did, but eventually, she resumes her letter writing, and apologizes to her sister. Several times this happens, and the worst conflict to me seems to occur when their daughters spend some time in New Mexico and Irene, Maggie’s grown daughter, spends a lot of unchaperoned time with a ranch boy, resulting in her being sent back east immediately.

The problems and conflicts in this book made me cringe at times, and many times I found myself wishing Abigail was back in the east. I could also sense the arrogance of the whites in Abigail’s letters. I also understood better now why New Mexico’s literacy level is as it is. I’m reminded of this middle school boy we talked to at one of the farms we went to. He’s into Rodeos and his father told us how his son is more interested in entering Rodeos and is not interested at all in pursuing academics. When I asked the boy, he showed his disdain and disinterest in school. In this book, Osborn articulately depicts how even civilized whites from the east during those times could turn ‘wild’ from living in such an untamed land. The mountains, canyons, mesas, rivers, blooming desert flowers and cacti could bewitch and lure you to their depths. Such was what happened to Abigail’s daughter, Margaret, who grew up practically attached to her older brother George who was always out in the desert on his horse. As societal customs then frowned upon girls handling cattle, Margaret grows up with a constant and bridled longing to be out there with her brother, and gives Abigail a hard time. Eventually, the yearning and longing won out and Abigail is left with two children who left her to be out there in the wild. Amy, her oldest daughter, turns out to be the only one who she can count on, and it is her granddaughter who reads her letters long after she has passed.

What I love about this book is not the plot however. The characters, well, I didn’t really bond with them as much either. But what captured me about this book was Abigail’s artistic skill. The New Mexico landscape, which to me, is rather depressing, is depicted with such beauty and flourish in this book, through Abigail’s artistic eyes. She paints the sunset, the Indians, the Mexicans, the landscape, the desert, the mountains. The description of the colors of the sky in her letters bewitched me. I have seen those scenic phenomenon throughout my years here so far in New Mexico and they truly are paintings in my mind, just as they are in Abigail’s mind when her sight deteriorated in her old age. As I progressed through this book, I realized how beautiful New Mexico truly is, and I found myself appreciating New Mexico and its beauty, its history, and its people. The Spanish words and terms have always baffled me, making me feel like I’m in a place I don’t want to be in. I’ve come to cuddle up with the names of desert plants like pinon, mesquite, and juniper, especially when I look through the homemade salves and balms sold at the Co-op and farmer’s market, and have even experienced their Allah-given healing properties. No wonder the Native Americans held their medicine man or woman in high esteem. The herbs and medicine they utilized truly have the healing properties from Allah. Subhanallah.

They call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment. I can understand why. The mystical aspects from the Indians incorporated into the seemingly magical landscape spread out before them create the Land of Enchantment. The colors of the sky, very visibly apparent day in day out add more to the magical experience. The sudden storms that create flash floods and revive the barren desert give the desert a dangerous reputation, and of course the rattlesnakes are no stranger to the list of dangers of the desert as well. I can’t help but tie this to tauheed, and it’s so easy to see how all these signs, the creations of the one and only Creator, can lead one to come to a conclusion of ‘Land of Enchantment’. This is itself is proof to the power of that Creator. A desert dweller, if guided by the rightly guided, can learn to appreciate these signs of Allah and come to a conclusion that there is a Creator, and that all these signs all eventually bring one to Him. The beauty, the danger, the colors, the death and life, all are proof of Allah. The signs of tauheed are everywhere, and in the desert, where everything is open and visible, it is even more so. And maybe that is part of the wisdom of me being here, that I appreciate these creations, reflect upon them, and bring myself to the concrete conclusion of the majesty and power of the Almighty. These creations are not just beautiful, they point to a greater being that is All More Powerful. The beauty is not just to be appreciated as is, the beauty is for us to reflect upon, and we have to pierce beyond the display of colors and mountain peaks and perfectly flat mesas to arrive to a deeper understanding of what Allah intended us to have.

Isn’t it amazing that in the desert, so much life is present? The colors you see in the desert of New Mexico belies one’s understanding of a ‘desert’. The colors you see in the sky, not obstucted by any man-made construction, but rather, made more intense by the regal presence of the mountains and mesas, cool your sight while also revitalizing your spirit. I thought about the psychology of colors, and how the desert is dull yellow. I have always been depressed by the dull yellow of the desert. Even its plants have that dull green shade, at least in the part of New Mexico I’m living in. But I also found some vibrant stimulating warm colors such as red, purple and bright yellow in the desert that come from the desert flowers. Then you have the azure blue of the sky as the backdrop, and believe me, the shade of blue of the sky you see is the most pleasing blue there is. Imagine if Allah had made the sky gray, or red, or orange, or even white. Why blue? Blue is calming. You can just look up to the blue sky and all your worries can flutter away, even if just for a while. In the desert, the dull yet sometimes golden yellow contrasts with the calming blue, and it brings balance into perspective. At two ends of the day, displays of greeting and farewell fill the never-ending expanse of the sky as a spectrum of colors fill every inch of it. And even when complete blackness covers it, sparkling beauties twinkle at you. I can’t help staring at the night sky here in the desert. I can  better understand and appreciate why Allah made the stars as adornment. They are like those sequins you find on your black abaya and hijabs.

This book truly brings out the beauty of the New Mexico desert. The plot is gripping. The characters are well developed. But it’s the artistic depiction of New Mexico that did it for me in this book. I believe I am slowly falling in love with this ‘Land of Enchantment’ even as I seek to leave it.

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