Nov 22, 2014

The Woman at Otowi Crossing

By Frank Waters

In a remote area of New Mexico, Helen runs a tea shop at a now-defunct railroad station. She is feeling rather adrift with the shutting down of the railroad, when her life starts to change. A daughter she had abandoned practically at birth comes to visit, hoping to build a relationship with her mother and ecstatic at the prospect of visiting pueblo ruins (she's a budding anthropologist). Helen experiences a change in consciousness, an opening to the oneness of things, a closeness to the slow methodical way of life embodied by the Navajo around her. It grows into a kind of spirituality that causes a rift between her and her long-time lover Turner, an aspiring news reporter. Then a secret government project moves in, taking over a local boys' school and blocking off large areas of the desert. In spite of the sworn secrecy and distance he's supposed to keep from the locals, one young scientist on the project, Gaylord, becomes involved with the anthropologist girl.  The tea room becomes frequented by men from the secret project "up the Hill", the reporter tries to find out what's going on up there, and gradually all their lives become intertwined.

I learned fairly soon that the big secret was the making and testing of atomic bombs. The beauty of the southwest setting and the quiet local people is a stark contrast to the dry scientific nature of the terrible project. The horrific potential looming, the shock of people when they found out what was going on, the ridiculous festiveness they brought to the test sites when it was revealed to the press. The characters are a study in contrasts too- the anthropologist a spoiled, passionate headstrong girl, her mother so calm and knowing, understood by few. I really didn't get a clear picture of what the legend was that grew around her; even though it was stated numerous times that the locals came to respect then revere her, including her in their sacred ceremonies. I liked how real these characters seemed- complex people each with their own reasons, each of them had something that appealed to me or I could in some way relate to.

Yet I had to force myself thorough to the end, even though I really wanted to like the book. It has a very slow start. The writing can feel rather jumbled; the descriptions of the scientific work was completely unclear to me and the narrative is interspersed with odd present-day snippets showing different individuals reminiscing about the events of the story, as if interviewed by the author. I didn't get it. I didn't quite get the spirituality that unfolded with Helen, although I liked the glimpses into Navajo culture and faith. But once again, that was not very well-explained and it was only a bit familiar to me because I've read a few other books featuring pueblo groups in the southwest.

It reminded me in some ways of Fire on the Mountain.

Rating: 2/5        314 pages, 1966

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