Dutton 507p. $28.95 2014
This sequel to Hard Country can be read on its own but makes a lot more sense if one has started at the beginning of the Kerney family presence in New Mexico. Backlands starts after CJ Kerney has been killed in the Great War. Emma’s health is failing and she takes eight-year-old Matt to the ranch where he finally becomes acquainted with his irascible father, Patrick. This is really Matt’s story as he shoulders responsibilities beyond his years, follows the path Emma had wanted for him, and does make it to college. New Mexico in the first half of the 20th century is the main “character” of this saga with accurate descriptions of the “land of enchantment” and her people at their best and at their worst. Matt is a smart strong character who becomes real through his triumphs and disasters. McGarrity knows New Mexico and it shows with his authentic descriptions from transcendent beauty to parched ugliness. The Roaring 20s, the dust bowl years, the Great Depression, and the years of World War II are conveyed with truth. On an intimate level, Matt experiences extraordinary love and loss. I was particularly struck by changes in fortune faced by the Kerneys that so echoed what was happening to my own antecedents in those same years several miles to the north. The precariousness of ranch life is eloquently detailed in a way that makes the reader care. Backlands is an appreciation of New Mexico, a love story about the land and people, detailing the sordid as well as the splendid. I can’t imaging any library in the American West not wanting to have both Hard Country and Backlands in their collections. I completely concur with the reviewers who have recommended it as a readalke to readers of The Son by Philipp Meyer and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.