Nothing Here but Stones, by Nancy Oswald

Review by Martha Quillen

Historical Novel – October 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

Nothing Here But Stones
by Nancy Oswald
Published by Henry Holt and Company in 2004
A Book for Young Readers (10 – adult)
ISBN 0-8050-7465-1

NOTHING HERE BUT STONES tells the story of Emma, her Papa, her sisters Adar and Ruth, her little brother Leb, and their neighbors, as they try to establish homes in Cotopaxi, Colorado, in 1882. Emma’s community has come to Colorado to escape oppression inflicted by Russian soldiers and to establish farms in a country where Jewish settlers can own land.

But they’ve been misled. Cotopaxi isn’t suitable for farming, and the homes they’ve paid for in advance are far from complete. Their new land is stony and dry. Their cabins don’t have doors or windows, and are open to pack rats, bad weather and bears.

Emma’s family speaks no English, and the children still mourn their mother who died shortly after Little Leb’s birth.

When they finally arrive in Cotopaxi, the small Jewish settlement has little money left, but Emma’s father finds work (first at a mine, then with the railroad). Papa has to leave his children for days at a time, and they are understandably lonesome and afraid. But Emma finds love and solace in a horse. Unfortunately, however, it’s a horse that the struggling community can’t afford to feed.

This is a fictional story featuring a fictional family, that’s narrated by Emma, a 10-year-old character. But the real author does a good job of showing what our region must have been like for members of the short-lived Jewish colony who once tried to settle here.

Author Nancy Oswald lives on a ranch at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and from 1882 – 1884, the real Cotopaxi Jewish community was located on land which now belongs to her family.

The most curious thing about Oswald’s book is the landscape. The author describes scenery we’ve all seen, but from a different perspective. In most written accounts, our mountains are described as beautiful, glorious, majestic, awe-inspiring…. But to Emma and her family, they are frightening and barren, and the descriptions reflect that view:

“…Ruth pulled on my sleeve.

“‘Emma, the rocks are taller than the buildings in New York City!'” I opened my eyes to see a crystal blue river shadowed by red rock walls that blocked the sun as the train crawled along the track.

“I wanted to see the full height of the cliffs, so I opened the window and stretched out, twisting so I could look up. I felt a tug on the back of my dress.

“‘You’re going to fall out.'” Adar yanked at me with her right hand, still holding little Leb with her left. A hot cinder flicked my cheek and I ducked back inside, hating the way Adar treats me…always bossing…always like a child.”

As I read, I kept waiting for little Emma to finally acknowledge our magnificent, breathtaking scenery. But that never happened. Emma tends to notice steep paths, rocky fields, and dangerous trails more readily. Although she mentions blue skies, green valleys, and lofty mountains, her view is never unequivocally enthusiastic. For example, when Emma is trying to drive their milk cow up the very steep hill to their new home, she says:

“When she settled down again, I looked up and saw the snow-covered peaks of a great mountain range towering above the rocky bluffs along the creek.

“‘Sangre de Cristo Mountains,'” Sarah said. ‘It means “Blood of Christ.”‘

“Perhaps we have been sent to the wrong place.” Etta laughed, but her laughter did not seem happy.”

Oswald’s book does a credible job of converting our beloved mountains into a foreign landscape, replete with forbidding terrain, bad weather, and a short growing season which presents the possibility of starvation.

Yet this story is not unremittingly bleak. The domestic squabbles blend with tender moments to create a family that’s heart-warming and believable.

This novel is not an historical epic, and it won’t tell you what became of these people. Instead, it merely covers a single winter in its young heroine’s life. But the characters are convincing, the story is poignant, and the book is short, sweet, and satisfying.

Nothing Here But Stones is a young adult book recommended for readers from ten to adult. Although it’s suitable for adults, you might want to read it with — or to — a youngster (assuming you know one). There’s no sex nor violence in this story, but there’s enough realism and death to worry young children.

–Martha Quillen