John Nichols is the novelist who wrote about Anglo developers’ steamrolling New Mexico's rural Hispanic way of life in The Milagro Beanfield War. Author of such acclaimed novels as The Milagro Beanfield War and The Sterile Cuckoo, John Nichols has been writing for more than three decades, publishing Cuckoo when he was only 23. Throughout his career, he has written 17 books and hundreds of essays and stories, many of which explore themes of social and environmental activism.
In The Milagro Beanfield War, novelist John Nichols presents the complexity of life in the besieged mountain villages, where folks are idle during the long winters and every resident's knowing his neighbors and their business leads to trouble. Nichols absorbs the raucous humor and fatalistic attitudes of his subjects. When Joe Mondragon taps into the waters of the acequia madre, the mother ditch, to irrigate an ancestral bean field, he at once performs a symbolic act, commits a crime, and initiates an all-out war against the Anglo developers of "Miracle Valley."
The Milagro Beanfield war takes as its theme the destruction of the land, and of a culture, in pursuit of economic profit. The tiny town of Milagro, where chickens and sheep share the streets with the occasional automobile, exists (only barely) in the shadow of major development, specifically that of the Miracle Valley Recreation Area, an Anglo-backed enterprise consisting of golf courses, ski slopes, and condominiums for the wealthy to enjoy in their leisure time. The people of Milagro are Hispanic; most formerly farmed the land, but they lost their irrigation rights through political finagling. When the land dried up, the majority of the farmers sold out to the developers, who now own the water rights. The so-called war begins when the one farmer who has not sold out, Joe Mondragon, in frustration over being turned down for a job on the crew of developer Ladd Devine kicks open a sluice, thereby diverting the recreation area's water into his parched beanfield. Thus Joe becomes an accidental revolutionary. His action is at first opposed by many of Milagro's residents, who believe that the development holds the promise of lucrative jobs.
Joe's defiance of Devine wins the support of Ruby Archuleta, the proprietor of the town's garage, who says that she has already spent too much of her life watching bad things happen to her people. She enlists the reluctant support of Charlie Bloom, a former activist lawyer who now publishes a small local newspaper, and persuades him to write about the beanfield and to print a notice of a town meeting to discuss Milagro's fate.
Devine and his men, who want to stop Joe without the negative publicity an arrest would bring, hire a detective, Kyril Montana, who instructs one of Devine's men to buy all the newspapers as soon as they hit the stand. This plan fails, however, when a small miracle occurs: Just as the papers are about to be fed into a fire, a sudden wind lifts them high into the air, and they drift on the breeze back over the streets of Milagro and then gently descend to earth. Other tactics are used to discourage Joe. Hired thugs beat him; a bullet shatters one of his windows; his cow is impounded on a phony charge of grazing on government land; his credit is cut off at the local store.
Ironically, it is a tragic accident that forces Joe to flee from his beanfield, rather than the scheming of his enemies. Early one morning, the pistol-wielding Amarante Cordova, Milagro's oldest resident, successfully defends the field from a bulldozer driven by one of Devine's men, but not before the bulldozer destroys a corner of Joe's patch. When Joe arrives later, unaware of the invasion by the bulldozer, he sees the damaged field, and in it Amarante's pet pig rooting away at the upturned plants. Joe shouts at the pig, but to no avail. He takes out his rifle and fires what are meant to be warning shots, but one of them hits the animal and it falls to the ground. Old Amarante, hearing the shots and seeing his fallen pig, comes running from the house, his gun blazing. In his state of rage, with his eyesight failing, he fails to see that it is Joe at whom he is shooting. Joe, in self-defense, is forced to shoot. Those who have witnessed the tragedy rush into the field and lift the gravely wounded Amarante into the back of a pickup truck to speed him to the clinic. Joe is urged by all to flee; they fear that he would never get a fair trial under the present circumstances.
Joe heads for the mountains, where he is eventually tracked by Montana, who now has the opportunity, for which he has been waiting. Just as he traps Joe at gunpoint, however, shots ring out, forcing Montana to scramble for his own life. In his panic, Montana tumbles down a hill, and Joe manages to escape, discovering on his route the man who has saved his life--one of Devine's own men, Horsethief Shorty, who brings him the news of another miracle: Old Amarante is going to recover. Joe hurries home to harvest his beans, and the whole town turns out to help in celebration. As the harvesting gets under way, police sirens drown out the noise of the workers. Montana arrives and has Joe arrested and handcuffed, charging him with attempted murder and unlawful flight. Before he can leave the field with his prisoner, however, Montana finds himself surrounded by Joe's friends and supporters, who, with guns drawn, refuse to allow him to take Joe away.
The resulting standoff ends when Montana receives a call over the squad-car radio from the governor, who, fearing political repercussions, orders Montana to drop all charges against Joe. Their ordeal finally over, the townspeople gather in jubilation for a harvest dance, where Ruby succeeds in getting everyone, even Milagro' s sheriff, to sign a petition opposing the development.
Nichols' self-deprecating humor shines as he treats his reader like a best friend taking a walk with him down memory lane, recalling the highs and lows that have shaped his life. With refreshing honesty, the author admits his faults and notes the arrogance that has driven him to write. “Says "Milagro Beanfield War" author John Nichols: "It never feels just like Taos to me. It feels like some laboratory where the whole universe is on display." (Guthrie, 2000)
That sets the stage for a very politically oriented memoir, which one would already expect if they've read any of Nichols' more popular New Mexico series on land grant and water right battles. Nichols refers to himself as a liberation ecologist, but does not focus exclusively on environmental issues. He explains that he was inspired by his father and grandfather to examine the human environment in every sense. Nichols has passionate feelings about the natural world, but also is driven by the need to understand and tell the story of the human condition.
He outlines his belief that we live in perilous times. Nichols recognizes that we live in an era of financial prosperity and are relatively free from the bloodshed that marked the era of world wars, but he still is unhappy with the environmental and social self-destruction of humanity we see today. Nichols offers, by far, the most levelheaded approach to environmental and social analysis. He does not fall into any left- or right-wing traps and isn't blinded by ideology. He simply retraces his life and shares with the reader the life-changing moments that defines who he is as a writer. Nichols already had a social conscience early in life, but he was so focused on writing the great American novel that he never really examined his instincts to recognize and correct inequality beyond the written word. He explains that he was fresh out of college; self- absorbed and only cared about his writing.
A trip to Guatemala to visit a friend from college in 1964 changed his life and was a social-political awakening. Nichols was taken aback by the disparity the likes of which he had never seen before. He was horrified and in awe of people who survived in a destitute environment ravaged by poverty. Worse yet, he realized that the long arm of the U.S. government had helped institute the disparity and squalor that humble Guatemalans suffered under. In an age where the myth exists that only minority writers can justly cover minority issues, Nichols has turned that idea on its head by proving that he can write some of the greatest novels to date on such topics.