All-Encompassing Arizona

Thomas Sheridan's history of the state fills the palate with comprehensive information.

Tom Sheridan present a phenomenal amount of information in 400 interesting and well-written pages. He has written the best short, definitive history of Arizona available.

But when you write an all-encompassing book touching on a huge number of subjects--many of which he can only truly touch on--you can get a couple of them wrong. Some smart-ass with a little more knowledge about a small part of the massive data processed will call your attention to it.

Two errors of fact were found. President James Buchanan did not initiate the Gadsden Purchase. That began under Fillmore and was completed under Pierce. Three old, third-string white guys are easy to confuse. And Evan Mecham did not challenge the old GOP power structure by running against Harry Rosenzweig for state chairman in 1963; it was Tucsonan Keith Brown. I know, because I was there. (Some think I was there for the Gadsden Purchase.)

Some judgment calls I'd dispute. Paula Marks' And Die In the West is overrated, and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian bears as much resemblance to the realities of frontier Arizona as an old William Boyd movie, only from the dark side. A lot of people who should know better are fascinated with McCarthy's style. I think it sucks, but what really bothers me is his substance. Hoppy never misses. Neither do McCarthy's bad guys.

Sheridan also overrates former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, but so does almost everybody else.

So much for the nits--this is a great book. It simply overflows with information that you want more of. Sheridan is not officially a historian, and it shows--he can write both colorfully and coherently. He is curator of ethnohistory at the Arizona State Museum, which gives him the credentials without a lot of the babble. He begins with the ancient Native Americans and weaves them throughout without over sentimentality. You will find in later chapters that different tribes were not very nice to each other before Spanish whitey moved in from the South and Anglo whitey from the East. Divide and conquer is how both conquered, but the divides were already there.

Sheridan divides his book into three parts: Incorporation, Extraction and Transformation. He doesn't stick to straight chronology, although the first part ends with the conquest of Indian Arizona. The Extraction section discusses transportation, cattle, farming, mining and water, while Transformation focuses on the last century and how we got here--and where we may be going.

This is not a fast read, because there is so much information included that you often stop and think before moving on. And there is a large bibliography section at the back that cites enough sources both primary and secondary to point you elsewhere if you're inclined to pursue some facet of Arizona history.

Unlike some historians who feel the need to explore everything from only primary sources and re-invent the wheel, Sheridan is not afraid to give much credit where it is due and lists and evaluates a massive number of books and articles. The bibliography section alone is worth the price.

Everybody interested in Arizona history has an area they are especially fond of, from Father Kino to Wyatt Earp, Native American customs to Hispanic culture, political trends to economic pillages. Sheridan doesn't miss any of them, from reservation life to race relations, Western bandits to the modern versions like Ned Warren and Charles Keating--from the Anastazi to AzScam, it's all there. It gives you a great chance to find out who these people were that have stuff named after them, like deAnza and Ehrenberg.

There's but one problem: You'll want this book to be longer. When you come to a spot of particular interest, you often get but a taste of what happened. Brevity is a necessary component of any general history, but like a fine appetizer prepared by a great chef, Sheridan makes you wish the plate was larger and contained more.

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