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Know the West

Beatification of a sinner: a review of The Soledad Crucifixion


The Soledad Crucifixion
Nancy Wood
336 pages, paperback: $21.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2012.

In Nancy Wood's newest novel, The Soledad Crucifixion, we find ourselves in Camposanto in the Territory of New Mexico, in the year 1897. Lorenzo Soledad has just been nailed to a cross. "On this, the last day of his life, the priest found himself thinking about birds."

More a work of surrealism than magical realism, The Soledad Crucifixion grabs the reader with wonder and fear on the first page and doesn't let go. The unusual protagonist -- a murderer, fornicator and Roman Catholic priest who spent his childhood in a Texas bordello -- brings the novel to life with his complex history and churning character.

For multiple sins, including begetting a child with a very young girl, Soledad is assigned to Camposanto, where the indigenous Calabaza people hide in the mountains, trying to avoid the encroaching white invaders. There, he finds a new and completely different universe. Village members are called spiritual custodians: the Custodian of Silence, a mute boy who carves beautifully and attaches himself to the priest; the Custodian of War, an ancient but vital warrior who shoots at locomotives to stop progress; the Custodian of Memory, and many more. The Calabazas have already fled other places where representatives of Soledad's church denounced what they saw as the tribe's sinful practices and beliefs. It is no surprise that the Calabazas return that hostility in full.

Braided into Soledad's tale, which begins years before his crucifixion, is another story set many years in the future, in which two priests voyage from the Vatican to New Mexico to determine whether the long-dead Soledad is now a candidate for canonization.

Author of eight volumes of poetry as well as 18 other books, Wood writes lyrically, creating a universe where miracles can and do happen -- not just once, but frequently. In Camposanto, God needs neither church nor priest. "Earth and sky coming together like a man and woman. That eagle. Those sheep. Each thing is sacred. Use your eyes, Padre. It's all there," advises the Custodian of Stories. Eventually, the Padre takes heed -- and so does the reader.