One of the myriad mysteries about our Land of Enchantment is how a country with vistas so heart-stopping, with skies so magnificent, often imposes on its human residents a stark existence, requiring grit, even courage, and a wry stoicism. New Yorker artist become New Mexican, Georgia O’Keefe symbolized that contrast with steer skulls in desert sand. She said that the iconic skull “was a symbol of the best part of America I had found.”
O’Keefe is an entry in Ron Hamm’s new collection of mini-biographies or notes on women who lived at least a part of their lives in New Mexico and in the 20th century. New Mexico Heroines of the Twentieth Century: Role Models for Today holdsprofiles of 260 women (not counting two or more women in an entry).
Permit me to prepare you for this review of Hamm’s work. Every New Mexican home should have a copy of New Mexico Heroines. Homes with kids should have multiple copies, to scatter around the house in hopes that someone will lay down a cell phone long enough to read an entry or two.
As a book meant for “dipping into,” however, there is a thread of a theme: our land creates women of surpassing intelligence, talent and the aforementioned grit. The variety of figures profiled includes Native Americans, Hispanas, Blacks and whites, women with families rooted like cottonwoods in New Mexico dirt and outlanders who arrived for a frolic in Santa Fe and stayed.
Accounting for who was chosen, Hamm has penned a charming introduction that breaks the number one rule laid down by our eighth-grade teacher: Don’t start your essay apologizing. Hamm is preparing the reader for the likes of me, critics who will ask why he didn’t include this woman or why he spent so few words on that woman. Still, the preface serves as a perfect guide to appreciating the value of the book.\
For once Silver City receives the treatment it deserves, outside the shadows of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Our heroines include Susan Berry, Rebecca Brewer, Anita Scott Coleman, Isabel Eckles, Isabella Greenway, Matilda R. Wright Koehler, Annette Kinyon, Frances Nunnery, Sharman Apt Russell, Allyson E. Siwik, and Elizabeth Warren. In a useful appendix that groups his subjects by theme, Hamm noted women of the Salt of the Earth, but for an unknown reason they didn’t enter the main text.
It’s easy to spot those entries that attracted Hamm’s admiration and writerly skills, calling out more than just the facts with all the verve of the White Pages. Consider Jackie Morgan Everts Bancroft Spencer who apparently had more money than names.
Spencer lived in “dusty, wind-whipped Carrizozo.” “She toured a camp for troubled boys, and, when the bus she was touring in broke down, she bought the camp a new one. Carrizozo children wanted a boxing program, so she bought them a professional ring. They wanted to bowl, so she built a recreation center. Ruidoso children wanted to ski, so Jackie underwrote their annual lift tickets.”
Part of the appeal of Heroines is the photographs, even when entries are minimal. Some portraits obviously came from “studios” where backlighting is more interesting than the frozen subjects. But sometimes even a “mug” shot, like the one for renowned potter Maria Antonia Montoya Martinez, “Povika” (Flower Leaf) or “Poveka” (Pond Lily), tells a reader that here’s a person worth knowing. So, too, the image of Myrtle Greenfield, pictured working with a patient in what seems to have been a school auditorium.
In the time I’ve lived with this book I have turned again and again to the photographs of Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca Gilbert, Ruth L. Kovnat and Gene Kloss. None of the three had I heard of before but now their images inspire me to know more about their contributions. Every reader is likely to have two or three portraits that capture their attention and demand further investigation.
Let’s return to the issue of subject selection that Hamm tried to tamp down in his intro. I propose that his publisher Sunstone offer a contest to readers: which New Mexican heroine should be replaced by another. I have my nominee for omission. Agnes Lawrence Pelton passed, at most, a year or two in New Mexico; she was really a Californian.
The woman who lured Pelton to New Mexico, Mabel Dodge Luhan was and is hugely significant, but Hamm left her out. No other woman had as large an influence in promoting New Mexican arts as Luhan. No other woman, including Mary Austin and Erna Fergusson, wrote as good a book about living in New Mexico as Lujan. (And if I could break contest rules and slip in a heroine without replacing another, I nominate novelist, poet and essayist Ana Castillo, who lives in our neck of the woods.)
New Mexico Heroines of the Twentieth Century altogether is a valuable work worth reading, keeping around for reference, and arguing over.