Mathews` on Burke, 'A Land Apart: The Southwest and the Nation in the Twentieth Century'

Flannery Burke. A Land Apart: The Southwest and the Nation in the Twentieth Century. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2017. 424 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8165-2841-7.

Reviewed by Sandra K. Mathews` (Nebraska Wesleyan University)
Published on H-NewMexico (December, 2018)
Commissioned by Tomas Jaehn (Special Collections/Center for Southwest Research)

Printable Version:

The Southwest: A Unique Twenty-First-Century Perspective

This most recent publication in the University of Arizona Press’s The Modern American West series, edited by David M. Wrobel and Andrew G. Kirk, is the first written by a woman—an excellent choice indeed. Billed as emphasizing “policy over politicians, communities over individuals, and stories over simple narratives” (back cover), the book is a masterful overview of Southwest history unlike any other. In her introduction and among her organizing principles, Flannery Burke reminds the reader that the descriptive identifier for the region, “Southwest,” is an ethnocentric term. The region remained center to its original inhabitants, the north for the region’s descendants of Spanish heritage, and the southwest only for Anglos coming from the east. Furthermore, she explains, “I strive to show how Native and Hispanic residents relate to the region on their own terms … that the region’s indigenous and Mexican heritage is key to understanding how the region took shape.” She defines the Southwest as one in which “independent, indigenous nations are plentiful,” with long-standing communities of Spanish and Mexican descent (p. 5). Flannery considers the impact of tourism as “instrumental to the region’s development and to southwesterners’ sense of themselves” (p. 10), the impact of the nuclear age and militarization, as well as the complexity of terminology in defining the region. Like much of the West, the Southwest is dependent upon the federal government, mining, and agriculture, and is defined in large part by its aridity. Yet, Burke recognizes that the regions differ in many ways. In the end, she argues that the Southwest is neither a history cast in amber, nor a place without a future—but that it has suffered for being “out of place and outside of time” (p. 25).

Burke brings together the history and culture of the varied peoples that live in the Southwest in part by expertly interweaving into her narrative literature by Native Americans, Hispanos, and Anglos to provide a broader context of a multicultural past, present, and future. Making appearances in the text are such classics as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca’s We Fed Them Cactus (1954), Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968), Peggy Pond Church’s The House at Otowi Bridge: The Story of Edith Warner and Los Alamos (1960), and too many others to list here. While the disparate cultures that live throughout the Southwest remain interconnected, they also maintain distinctiveness that cannot be vanquished by time, outside influences, or perceptions by outsiders. Her mastery of historical and literary sources, imperative to understanding the region’s history and which have influenced how one thinks about the Southwest, is exceptional.

The book does not follow a chronological organization, but instead, “emphasizes policy over politicians, communities over individuals, and stories over simple summaries” (p. 22). While some readers may find the organization disorienting, be patient. The best is yet to come. For, as she argues, this book provides an “interpretation of what made the Southwest matter to the nation in the twentieth century” (p. 22). In part 1, entitled “Borders,” Burke explains the place and its people in two chapters, “A Place by Itself, 1912-1929” and “The Story Attached to It, 1929-2000.” She continues with part 2, “Indian Country.” Her two chapters “Nations, Tribes, Communities, and Towns, 1876-1935” and “The Story Still Being Told, 1940-2000” highlight the different communities of Native people that exist throughout the Southwest. Part 3, “Reducing to Possession,” which includes two chapters entitled “The Searchers: Race and Tourism in the Southwest” and “Own It: Race, Pace, and Belonging,” is perhaps her most esoteric section, which highlights the impact of others who came to or claimed the Southwest.

In part 4, “Theatre of All Possibilities,” the chapter on “Boom Towns: The Nuclear Southwest” obviously highlights the military and research segment of New Mexico’s history, while the chapter entitled “Water is the Earth’s Blood” focuses instead on the region’s aridity and how the Southwest has learned to cope (or not) with its sacred water. Throughout her conclusion, subtitled “Without Problems, We Wouldn’t Have Any Stories,” Burke highlights the role of storytelling and the impact that stories have on the region. Whether traditional Native American, Hispanic, or Anglo stories, or those emanating from shared experiences—such as the New Mexico State Penitentiary riot of 1980—these shared stories tell the history of the Southwest. Even so, Burke argues that the “perception of the Southwest as a region outside of time has allowed, and even invited land use, social structures, and cultural patters that threaten the region’s future” (p. 24). A Land Apart: The Southwest and the Nation in the Twentieth Century is a must-read for those fascinated by the region, the significance of story, and the importance of perception by those who live within its boundaries as well as those who choose simply to visit.

Citation: Sandra K. Mathews`. Review of Burke, Flannery, A Land Apart: The Southwest and the Nation in the Twentieth Century. H-NewMexico, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.