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for people who care about the West

Impressions of Pueblo prehistory

 

Every branch of science needs its voice — the popular writer who makes research come alive, in ways that scientists rarely manage. With House of Rain, Craig Childs lays claim to be the voice of Southwestern archaeology. Moving across the region, he conjures up sites, scientists, and the prehistoric people of the Colorado Plateau. Those people live on, of course, primarily as the Pueblo Indians. House of Rain is, on its surface, a book about Pueblo prehistory.

Childs has a lifelong familiarity with the Southwest and is an experienced regional writer. His previous books mix natural history and personal adventure; this is the first in which he focuses on archaeology. House of Rain builds on encounters with experts in the field — the literary device John McPhee used in Annals of the Former World — but to less effect. At the end of Annals the reader knows little about McPhee, much more about geology and geologists. Although House of Rain has some information on Southwestern prehistory, it also tells us a great deal about Craig Childs.

The book has riled professionals in the field, including seven anthropologists who claimed that an abbreviated version published in the March 2007 Natural History “seriously misrepresents the work, ideas, and practices of professional anthropologists.” Rather than being an exhaustive, carefully reasoned popular account of Pueblo prehistory, House of Rain is one person’s impressions of the distant past, mixed with just enough professional opinion to give the book a feeling of scientific legitimacy.

But as Childs himself has noted, “I wrote this book in order to express numerous different viewpoints, namely those of archaeologists, Pueblo people, wilderness travelers, and lay people.” This book is not meant to be archaeology, any more than Ed Abbey’s writings were meant to constitute natural history. Instead, such books can be seen as one person’s attempt to appreciate some aspect of the world, and to pass on that appreciation. Even if you never do this yourself, the books plead, it’s important; you can begin to see and understand it through my eyes. Craig Childs’ physical and mental travels for his readers are the strength of House of Rain.

House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization across the American Southwest
Craig Childs
512 pages, hardcover: $24.99.
Little, Brown & Co., 2007.