Gold and Souls
Winter of the Metal People
Dennis Herrick’s deeply moving and well written historical novel, Winter of the Metal People, relates the first contact between the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest and the Spanish forces led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1540. With scholarly attention to detail and literary ease, Herrick writes of the bloody events that followed the arrival of Coronado’s advance expedition as it barreled through the Southwest, armed with horses, Aztec allies, Franciscan friars in search of souls to convert and Spanish soldiers seeking the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola (and the gold, glory, and riches they would surely find therein).
This narrative technique is what saves the novel from being a grim recitation of war crimes and allows the reader to engage with the human element behind the sad statistics.
The history itself is a stark but compelling one. As the Spanish forces make their way through the Southwest, entire pueblos are destroyed, families are torn apart, and hundreds of Pueblo Indian lives are lost. Those that live are forced from their homes, compelled to feed, clothe, and tolerate the presence of strangers in their land, and many are tortured, raped, and threatened. Herrick gives the reader access to this history (most of which was recorded by the Spanish conquistadors) by telling the majority of the story through the experiences of a fictional young Zuni warrior, whose fate we follow from the first page to the last. This warrior’s bravery in the face of crisis, his fears for his wife and his people, his ability to adjust to a new and disorienting reality, and to modify traditional approaches to warfare accordingly (for example, though the stealing and taming of the Spaniards’ horses) are inspiring moments of storytelling. This narrative technique is what saves the novel from being a grim recitation of war crimes and allows the reader to engage with the human element behind the sad statistics.
Herrick also occasionally shows the story from the perspective of both die-hard believers in Spanish and Catholic supremacy and those members of the expedition who had deep doubts about the justness of their cause. The effect of this dual perspective is powerful. Though the reader is never quite put in the position of sympathizing with those who are so clearly the bad guys of history, it’s still unsettling to realize that many of those doing the invading were homesick and weary, disillusioned and desperate at the lack of gold they had been guaranteed—some were even conquered peoples themselves. This realization only deepens the human tragedy of this history.
As we read of the Pueblo Indians’ bravery and resilience against the foreign invaders, as we cheer their determination and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds, we can almost believe, for a moment, that history was otherwise.
Dennis Herrick reads from Winter of the Metal People
Sunday, Sept. 8, 3pm
4022 Rio Grande NW