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Canyon of Remembering, by Lesley Poling-Kempes

Review by Jeanne Englert

Fiction – January 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

Canyon of Remembering
by Lesley Poling-Kempes
Published in 1996 by Texas Tech University Press
ISBN 0896724352

WHITNEY SLOPE was an acclaimed Santa Fé landscape artist who walked away from his own gallery show opening, tired of pandering to the elite Santa Fe arts clique. He finds solace, seeks redemption, and becomes a part of the little community of Mi Ojo west of Santa Fé.

It’s a cliché to use the phrase “well-drawn characters,” but it’s apt here. The community’s inhabitants include Atencio, a Vietnam War veteran and former carver of santos who hallucinates snakes slithering across the mud floor of his mother’s house; a family of illegal immigrants living in an abandoned gas station on the edge of town; and Slope’s landlady, Dominga, who is renowned for having seen flying sheep tossed in the winds of a thunderstorm. Oh yes, gatos, tambien.

You will care about these people. Certainly the artists and artisans in Salida and the San Luis Valley will resonate to Whitney Slope’s contradictory desires. On the one hand, he wants to be left alone to paint. But on the other hand, Whitney rediscovers the source of his creativity by moving to a ramshackle house in the Canon de Recuerdos and becoming a useful member of the Mi Ojo hamlet in his search to make something permanent and beautiful.

That desire to make something permanent and beautiful is what drives Atencio, Mi Ojo’s town drunk, to replace the dirt floor of his mother’s house, and to lay the patio of the house the artist has rented with rose sandstone — precisely fitted, each stone carefully faceted. “Atencio wouldn’t have done that,” I muttered to my husband at a candidate fundraiser near Boulder where I couldn’t help but note the lousy job some uncaring workers had done in laying a Lyons flagstone patio for one of the oversized mansions that keep popping up in the Front Strange.

What I like best about this lovely little novel is the sensuality of Poling-Kempes writing style. You smell, see, hear, and feel what the character experiences. For example, the following passage is typical of how you — the reader — can feel like you’re along for the ride when Slope heads back to Santa Fé in his pickup to get his stuff after he decides to live in Mi Ojo.

“The hot wind blasted Whitney through the open window and kept the sweat from soaking into his shirt. With the tape player turned bearably loud, Whitney could enjoy Mozart over the engine noise. It was a beautiful drive, first through the bosque along the river, then out into the mesa country where the sand was populated with red rocks that stood in clusters like monuments to dead ancestors. He counted the corpses of five jack-rabbits and one dog, its stiff legs aimed for the sky, along the road’s side, and indulged for a moment in the humanitarian, yet ultimately foolish, impulse to feel sorry for desert animals.”

Colorado Central readers should also relate to the pressures of development Whitney’s Santa Fé friends experience. A fat-cat developer wants to raze the historic structures of Burro Alley, which is home to the Burro Alley Boot Repair shop, the “tortilla sisters” tortilla factory, and the historic High Noon Café. The vindictive developer also breaks into Slope’s Cañon de Recuerdos home, destroying all of his paintings but one, which his goons miss. His wife, the cynical art gallery owner, ultimately becomes instrumental in saving these structures, thus finding her own redemption.

She is distressed her husband would do such an awful thing. “You see, Whitney? It’s that good people don’t win. It’s the bad that have the power. Always. And if you don’t play by their rules, play dirty and mean, you lose. You do.”

She cannot understand why Whitney could be so forgiving. “Because I’ve been forgiven all my life,” he replies. Amen.

–Jeanne Englert