To read Florence B. Weinberg’s book Seven Cities of Mud is to step back in time to a place in history few of us know or understand. This magnificent, historical novel by one of the best writers in her genre should be on everyone’s book list. I often find myself going back into it several times during the day. Each time I found something new to absorb.
A gallant novel, Seven Cities of Mud follows the way north from Santa Barbara, Mexico into the territory of New Mexico. This book tells the stories of the brave Franciscan missionaries, Fray Agustin Rodrigues, Father Fray Francisco Lopez, and Father Fray Juan de Santa Maria, and the greedy soldiers they brought along for protection. It also depicts the ever evolving lives of the early pueblo Indians. They are all searching for their own definition of wealth. The Missionaries yearn for souls, the Indians desire a life of peace, and the Spanish soldiers are hungry for gold. But what they find along their way is far more important than they ever would have expected or imagined.
Author Weinberg weaves a tale of fiction around her characters that draws her readers into their very souls. Because every action, confrontation, and resolution is so aptly described, I found myself sometimes wondering who the true protagonists were in this story. Each and every one of them manages to find a way into my heart. Indeed, the young Tiwa girl, Poli, and her evil and lust-driven pursuer, Makta, is a story that could stand by itself and made all the more interesting by Weinberg’s classic and almost poetic descriptions of the land and customs of the pueblo natives.
Much in the style of Michener’s unique and sweeping storytelling, Florence Weinberg tells of life, love, sorrow, and the ultimate resurrection of traditional values still held precious today among the pueblo people who live and work their villages along what is now the Rio Grande. But this book also goes into the emotions, fears, and religious faith of the missionaries as they wandered through a desert wilderness hoping to establish a place for Christ in the lives of the mud village natives.
The following excerpt from Seven Cities of Mud is my favorite. It is the touching epiphany of Fray Juan who begins to doubt the validity of his solitary mission.
“Darkness was closing in. The sun, hidden behind the mountain, shrouded him in shadow while it still shone its last rays on the distant plain ahead, glowing pink-gold like an unattainable promise of Paradise. Now that no one was watching, he gave his regret, newfound fear and sudden loneliness, free expression. He lowered his head allowing his horse to pick his way downward on a loose rein among the twisted roots of this mountain range. A few tears dropped on the cantle of his saddle and he wiped them away with his sleeve. Such emotion was not practical. Snap out of it, Juan! Forgive my weakness, Lord! Santa Maria, speak to your dear Son, please, and ask Him to protect my brothers from all harm and protect me, too, on this mission. Guide my footsteps, I pray!” (Chapter IX; page 140.)
Seven Cities of Mud is a tale woven of brightly colored threads of profound historical fact mixed with fiction. The ultimate prize? A blanket to keep you warm on a cold night while you lose yourself in this wonderfully choreographed read.
--Janet K. Brennan