I bring you a new book by an author I read last year for the first time. Recommended to readers of historical fiction.
No Secret Too Small. A Novel of Old New Mexico by Loretta Miles Tollefson
A novel dedicated to all the world’s children caught in the cross fire of adult squabbles.
New Mexico, 1837. As New Mexico teeters on the verge of revolution, eight-year-old Alma’s family experiences an upheaval of its own. Ten years ago, her father, Gerald, chose not to tell her mother, Suzanna, that some of his ancestors were born in Africa. Now Alma’s mother has learned the truth.
Stunned and furious, Suzanna leaves the family’s mountain valley and takes Alma and her younger brother, Andrew, with her. Gerald allows the children to go because he believes they’ll be safer with their mother than with him in the mountains. However, as Suzanna, Alma, and Andrew reach Santa Fe, revolt breaks out and the children are exposed to sights no child should ever have to experience.
This trauma and the prejudice the children experience because of their heritage makes Alma long for home. But even if her mother can forgive past secrets, the way is now blocked by wintery weather and entrenched rebels. Will Alma’s family ever be reunited?
A heart-breaking yet ultimately triumphant story about secrets, prejudice, love, and the impact of adult conflict on our children.
About the author:
Loretta Miles Tollefson has been publishing fiction and poetry since 1975. (She’s not old–she started young!) Growing up in foothills of the Olympic Mountains in the log cabin her grandfather built and her father was born in led naturally to an interest in history and historical fiction. When she retired to the mountains of northern New Mexico, writing historical fiction set there was a logical result. The Moreno Valley Sketches books are the first in many planned books set there.
Before turning to historical fiction full time, Loretta wrote Crown of Laurel, a novel set in Seattle in the recession of the early 1980’s. Loretta holds a B.S. in Bible Education from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. This background informs her poetry collections Mary at the Cross: Voices from the New Testament and And Then Moses Was There: Voices from the Old Testament.
In the mid-1980’s, Loretta and her husband suffered the loss of their first child in the fifth month of pregnancy. Her poetry collection But Still My Child came out of that period and is designed to help others deal with the pain of miscarriage.
Loretta holds M.A.’s in Communication and in English Literature from the University of New Mexico. Most days, you’ll find her researching New Mexico history in the 1800’s and writing furiously. She publishes short historical fiction every week at LorettaMilesTollefson.Wordpress.com
I discovered Loretta MilesTollefson’s writing through Rosie’s Book Review Team when I first read and reviewed one of the novels in the Old New Mexico series, Not My Father’s House (you can read my review here). That was the second book that tells the story of Gerald Locke and his family. The series also includes short stories and microfiction set in the same territory during the XIX century, and also a novel based on real events, The Pain and the Sorrow. I loved the setting of the previous novel and the characters and thank the author for offering me an early ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review and enjoyed.
While the previous novel was set in the Moreno Valley, and we lived the life of mountain settlers, with its harshness, its dangers, its challenges, and also its moments of wonder and joy; this novel sees Suzanna and her two children (Alma and Andrew) move from town to town (from the Valley to San Fernando de Taos, to Chimayó and then to Santa Fe. In the process, they get involved, although marginally, in the political upheaval of the era, coming into contact with both, rebels and supporters of the Mexican government, and witnessing some tragic events. And although their lives in the Valley weren’t easy, they soon discover that sometimes, hard work and stubbornness are not enough to ensure a decent living.
At the heart of the novel is a secret, something Gerald kept from Suzanna, although, to be fair, she insisted she didn’t need to know. The situation reminded me of one of Antonio Machado’s poems: ‘Dijiste media verdad. Dirán que mientes dos veces si dices la otra mitad.’ ‘You told half a truth. They’ll say you lie twice if you tell the other half.’ The secret (if you read the description carefully, you’ll find out what it is) involves the assumption that we are not all the same, and some are better than others just based on our ancestors and their origins/skin colour. Such prejudice is more deeply rooted than Suzanna realised (or wanted to acknowledge), and it challenges her own opinion of herself and others. Her beliefs and her attitude are put to the test while she is away, and she learns truths about herself that she does not like but ultimately make her stronger.
As was the case in the previous novel, we can find a mix of fictional and true historical characters, and the author provides a summary of historical events at the end, which help provide a more detailed background to the story, a glossary of terms (both Spanish and also English of the period), and also brief biographical notes on the real historical figures that appear in the text. Some of my old favourites from the previous novel appear as well: Ramon, although he stays behind for much of the action, Old One-Eyed Pete, the trapper, Old Bill, Gregorio García, and some new ones that I love as well, especially señora Ortega (who can appear grumpy, harsh, and keen to tell unpalatable truths, but also a fair and honest woman happy to give other women a chance), and Antonia García, the mother of Gregorio, who grabs a second chance when it comes her way.
The story is told in the third person in present tense, not a common choice, but one that works particularly well as we see things form the point of view of Alma, an eight years old girl forced to grow up far too quickly for her age. She tries hard to be strong, to do her part, and to support her mother and brother, even if she doesn’t agree with what her mother has done. I love Alma and she is easier to empathise with than her mother, whose behaviour is sometimes petulant, unreasonable and selfish. She puts her children and herself in danger, and although her husband is in the wrong as well, her stubbornness drives her too far. Having read the previous novel, and knowing how hard Suzanna had to fight to survive in the valley, and the horrific experiences she went through, make her disappointment and her inflexible attitude easier to understand, although not so much some of the deep (and perhaps even not fully conscious) reasons behind it. The fact that others in her life don’t dare oppose her or prefer to let her do and keep the peace could have had dire consequences, for her and the children, although, of course, nobody realised how quickly the political situation would deteriorate, or how hard making a living would be for a mother of two on her own. (Or they underestimated Suzanna’s stubbornness).
The author manages to provide a strong sense of the setting, the historical period, and the customs and traditions of the era without overdoing the descriptions or disrupting the action. The story flows and ebbs, as does life, and we have quiet moments, of routine, work, and everyday life, but the three main protagonists (Suzanna, Alma, and Andrew) also travel, are exposed to dangers, and are shocked and traumatised by the violence around them. We learn about weaving, about life in the New Mexico of the late 1830s, and about the prejudices of the period. Unfortunately, some things don’t change, but at least the main characters in the novel learn from their mistakes. One can but wish the same would happen in real life in the here and now.
The ending is satisfying, and I am sure all readers will enjoy it. I don’t know if we’ll hear more about the Locke family and their adventures, but, somehow, I know they’ll be all right.
I think readers who get to this story without having read the rest of the series will be able to connect with the characters and follow their adventures without too much difficulty, although it will be easier to understand the motivations and appreciate more fully the relationships and the background to the story for those who have read the other two novels related to the Lockes’ (and I hope to catch up on Not Just Any Man at some point in the future). Although we don’t witness any violent acts directly, there are scenes illustrating the consequences of the violence bound to be upsetting for some readers of the book, and prejudice and racism are an important theme, so prospective readers need to take that into consideration when deciding if this might be the book for them. As I usually say, it is worth checking a sample of the book to see if the voice and the narrative style is a good fit for those thinking about purchasing it.
I recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction keen to learn about a little-known period of the history of the United States, to those interested in the life of pioneer women, and also any readers looking for a story that is as relevant and inspiring. And the bonus is that there are other books in the series for those who enjoy this one.
Thanks to the author for the novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and keep safe (and smiling)!