Know When to Fold 'Em

Feb 13, 2017

The Spanish American boy playing in an irrigation ditch depicted in this photograph by Russell Lee as part of the Farm Security Administration Collection is reflective of the many ways an irrigation ditch is part of life for every member of the Milagro community.
Credit Russell Lee / Library of Congress

Welcome to High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club, an on-air, on-line community of readers exploring themes of common interest to those who live and work on the High Plains.  We’ve been talking about John Nichols’ 1970’s classic, The Milagro Beanfield War, part of our 2017 Spring Read, Water and Replenishment.

Nichols’ novel centers on the usual conflict between those with money and connections and those without. In Milagro, the war concerns water: who pays, who has legal access. Yet, there’s sooooo much else going on: fanciful folk tales, satirical sketches of characters that seem sooo 1970’s – the hapless Peace Corps volunteer battling ants and skunks; old men bearing ancient arms determined to retrieve a confiscated cow; a burned out civil rights attorney; a shambling sheriff; corporate cronies and government yes-men; rabble-rousing Ruby and all her community meetings, petitions and pamphleteering.  Amidst the tangle of characters and seemingly competing story lines, we might overlook the ways that Nichols incorporates water into virtually every setting and scene.

In one of my favorites, a couple of Milagrans have a trout fishing contest– the winner catches 2.1 trout every minute. With nary a fly.  In other scenes, other Milagrans deal with the theft of trout from their hatchery. Some Milagrans swim and bathe and wrestle with wildlife in natural lakes, rivers, creeks; others relax near fenced-in swimming pools, concrete, sanitized, private.  Meanwhile, the ever-running undercurrent (ahem) is the struggle between those who want to dam lakes to build resorts and those who don’t.

We are not remiss, Radio Readers, given the great literary traditions of much American literature, to anticipate that in Nichol’s novel the underdogs—the have-nots—will surely lose some battles but surely win the war.  But how?  Through armed resistance? Through representative government? Through media?

One answer Nichols gives? Orneriness. Some Milagrans, it turns out, are just ornery. As one bureaucrat explains, “We underestimated the people’s ability to comprehend the complexities and to react against what none of them actually understands.”  Nichols writes that the governor – purely a fictional character— “could see some things” and one thing he sees clearly is that a prolonged war between government- backed real estate developers and disenfranchised Milagrans could, quite paradoxically, cost him his political career.  And so, the novel ends, the illegally irrigated beanfields of Milagro continue to grow and others will, in the words of Nichols’ fictional governor, fold a losing hand and wait for better cards….

If you’d like to respond with a BookByte, you can find information at Radio Readers Book Club under the features menu at  You can also catch up on BookBytes you might have missed AND listen again to favorites, from this and earlier book club series.

For HPPR Radio Readers, I’m Jane Holwerda, from Dodge City, Kansas, hoping the ability of High Plains folk to comprehend complexities never be underestimated.