On the Shelves

This week in new books, Baja California, cowboys and Chivas Regal

The Bare-Toed Vaquero: Life in Baja California's Desert Mountains

By Peter J. Marchand

University of New Mexico Press

$34.95; 136 pages; photo essay

To get material for this book on the lives of ranchers in Baja's Sierra de la Giganta, field biologist and photographer Peter J. Marchand hauled his sleeping bag and camera via beat-up pickup or mule through soaring temperatures and over rough mountains. He captures and chronicles the lives of the ranchers, isolated from contemporary society, by staying with their families, rising before dawn, lending a hand.

Marchand frames his photographs with narrative. He gives history and context and relates traveling from one ranch to another, describing settings, individuals and activities. The photographs are black and white: close-ups of faces; shots with ranchers in fields or ranches in valleys; people at work with their animals or harvesting or preparing food. He presents a sympathetic portrait of a society in traditional, subsistence self-sufficiency.

And the "bare-toed" part of "vaquero"? For protection from brush and cacti, these cowboys have developed tack with full-protection stirrups and leather gaiters and wide chaps so they can ride in huaraches.

I'd have appreciated at least one map to follow Marchand's Baja travels, but it's a very appealing book.

De Grazia: The Man and the Myths

By James W. Johnson with Marilyn D. Johnson

University of Arizona Press

$29.95; 288 pages; biography

So ... how many wives/ affairs/ children/ downed bottles of Chivas Regal would artist Ted De Grazia claim on any given day? Nine? Innumerable? Twenty-four? A couple by midday? 

And how many would there really be?

The challenge for biographer and retired UA journalism professor James W. Johnson in De Grazia: The Man and the Myths was to pull aside the curtain of the artist Oz of North Swan Road to see what strings he was pulling. De Grazia himself kept that curtain pretty taut: He made outrageous public claims about himself and left behind few revealing personal accounts. Even his wives (and his paramour) were discreet about his private life. What we know, though, is that the Tucson artist of faceless, floating Indian children, matadors and galloping horses, with his trademark grizzled beard and prospector's outfit, made our town famous in a memorable, kitschy way.

What emerges from Johnson's comprehensive book is a portrait of a creative son of a Morenci miner, with boundless energy and drive, seeking both to please the artistic community and poke it in the eye. He was shrewd enough to turn art into millions—and to let his practical wife manage the money as he wandered.

We get a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, and it's entertaining watching him pull strings. Plus, a lot of old Tucson names show up.

So ... the real numbers? Two wives and a mistress. Four children. And he often shared his bottle of Chivas Regal.

The Horse Lover: A Cowboy's Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs

By H. Alan Day with Lynn Wiese Sneyd; foreword by Sandra Day O'Connor

University of Nebraska Press

$24.95; 264 pages; memoir

There's just something about a horse running free in a field. Or, in this case, 1,500 wild ones on more than 35,000 acres.

In The Horse Lover, H. Alan Day, a Southern Arizona cattle rancher and brother of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, chronicles his unexpected venture into the world of wild mustangs. In 1988, when he'd just bought a grassy spread in South Dakota, someone approached him with the idea of establishing a sanctuary for the unadoptable wild mustangs the U.S. government had warehoused in feed lots. Day went for it.

This is a compelling story of wrangling government and "gentling" wild horses—two enterprises not always compatible. Woven through it are anecdotes of Day's own favorite horses and down-to-earth tales of running cattle and horses. Beware, though. As soon as you read a romantic line like the "horses ran with the grasses and the sky, the lines of separation evaporated," be prepared for a sudden face-plant.

I liked the book, and I'm shipping copies to the sister and brothers-in-law who keep riding boots at the ready. (I'll throw in hankies.)

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