The best books set in New Mexico

H.L. Cherryholmes Author Of The Reminisce
By H.L. Cherryholmes

The Books I Picked & Why

The Milagro Beanfield War

By John Nichols

Book cover of The Milagro Beanfield War

Why this book?

This is book one of John Nichols’ wonderful New Mexico trilogy and what I enjoyed about it the most was the humor - because New Mexicans can find humor in the most absurd or sad or irritating or even banal situations. Pursuit of wealth versus preservation of culture is at the center and Nichols does a great job of depicting the pride and quirks of the small-town poor farmers and wealthy developers as they battle over water rights. Of course, magic realism creeps in – or actually crawls in, as a long- dismembered arm allegedly bears the responsibility for the townspeople’s woes. Through and through these characters were all reminiscent of people I knew growing up.  

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By Rudolfo Anaya

Book cover of Alburquerque

Why this book?

I was a fan of Anaya’s well-known novel, Bless Me, Ultima, and was intrigued that this title’s spelling itself was significant, returning the first ‘r’ to the city name a century after it was dropped by a white station owner. Anaya blends fantasy with history, examining the myth of racial purity and offering a different take on being a New Mexican and our connection to the land. He also departs from a familiar depiction of Albuquerque as a sleepy western town and paints it as a vibrant metropolis with all the associated political machinations. Mostly though, I felt a strong connection with the protagonist, an up-and-coming boxer who learns he was adopted and questions the definition of identity. 

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A History of the Jews in New Mexico

By Henry J. Tobias

Book cover of A History of the Jews in New Mexico

Why this book?

This is a nonfiction book and typical of New Mexico, as there are whole chapters of its history nobody really knows about. The (probably) first white American woman to come into the territory was a Jewish woman who accompanied her merchant husband and brothers. Even more interesting, merchants and traders weren’t even the first Jewish people - “Crypto-Jews” who were fleeing the inquisition came to New Mexico long before it was part of the US and kept their identity secret to assimilate. This is depicted with a character in Alburquerque and that perfectly encapsulates one of the overriding things about New Mexico and its tales – a deep sense of connectedness, across people, across the land. 

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By Tony Hillerman

Book cover of Skinwalkers

Why this book?

Tony Hillerman created one of the most original detective series I’ve ever come across - Navajo tribal mystery novels. A Thief of Time is probably my favorite of his books but I chose Skinwalkers because it was the first of Hillerman’s novels I had read and skinwalkers are witches who turn themselves into animals, so there’s that. It was a great introduction to his universe of Navajo mysticism and the otherworldly elements that pervade New Mexico, particularly among, but certainly not limited to, its indigenous people. I loved delving into the Navajo history and legends and Police Lieutenant Leaphorn and Tribal Officer Chee are both unique yet very familiar in what could almost be described as a buddy-cop story.  

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Death Comes for the Archbishop

By Willa Cather

Book cover of Death Comes for the Archbishop

Why this book?

Cather’s love of the land here is apparent here as missionary Father Jean arrives from France in the 1800s following the annexation of New Mexico to bring his faith to the reluctant indigenous people, Spanish settlers, and skeptical Mexican priests set in their own hybrid ways. I had to read this book in high school and as an adult in 2021 I have a wholly different take on its whole colonialism thing. But, by the end, even after he retires Father Jean chooses to stay in New Mexico than go back to France (!!) which truthfully speaks to how New Mexico grabs a hold of you. Plus his life’s dream was to build a grand church in Santa Fe like those he knew in Europe and then when he dies he gets to lie in state, right there, in his dream. 

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