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for people who care about the West

Listening to the secret heart: a review of The Last Shepherd

 

The Last Shepherd
Martin Etchart
203 pages, softcover: $22.
University of Nevada Press, 2012.

Arizona author Martin Etchart's compelling second novel takes readers to the heart of a Basque family, originally from the French Pyrenees, that has been whittled down to two: a father and a son. Mathieu Etcheberri, the son of Basque shepherds who built a hardscrabble life in the mountains above Phoenix, Ariz., wants nothing to do with the family ranch or its "boring sheep." He'd rather attend a university and find a new future. But when his father dies in a truck accident, caused by a monsoon storm that "tightened into a fist that crushed my world," he finds himself alone, facing a perplexing situation. It turns out that the ranch is not his to sell; it belongs to an aunt in Urebel, France, a woman he has never met who has always returned, unopened, any letters sent to her.

Declining an offer by a crooked attorney who wants the land for development, Mathieu stumbles along in his good-hearted "Basq-oh" way, choosing to trust the still, small voices of his dead father and aitatxi (grandfather). And so he finds himself back in one of the seven traditional provinces of Spain's Basque country, face-to-face with bihotz isilekoa -- the deep secrets of the heart. Confronted by the mystery of past family quarrels -- "even though I'd discovered a family I hadn't known existed," he notes, "half of them wouldn't acknowledge me" -- he gradually unravels the knotted strings his progenitors left to entangle their descendants.

Through a twisting chain of events, narrated with a broad sprinkling of Euskara (the Basque language, which lacks common roots with any other language), Mathieu begins to understand the deep community bonds among his people. Their culture may be unfamiliar to most readers, but the haunting resonance of ancestral ties echoes in families throughout the world, from time immemorial. Etchart's musical writing draws its strength from the rhythms of his native sensibility. The behotza, the heart, knows the answers. Mathieu learns to listen to it, and in the process, discovers how to set about righting some age-old wrongs.