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Novelist explores society in 1920s Taos

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sue Hallgarth’s new novel “Death Comes” may be billed as a mystery, but that element takes a back seat to the larger story about life in Taos in the mid-1920s.

Sue Hallgarth discusses, signs “Death Comes, A Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery” at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, at Collected Works, 202 Galisteo, Santa Fe, and 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.

It’s a captivating novel about what Hallgarth called “the mixture of cultures” in the town.

“It’s about the society in Taos. That’s what I’m after. It’s sort of ambitious, I know,” Hallgarth said.

The novel brings together a gaggle of Anglos —— mostly historical figures and some fictitious characters ——who live in or visit Taos in the summer of 1926. A few Hispanics and Native American populate the book.

The visitors of interest are three “modern” women of the period: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather, her life partner, artist Edith Lewis, as well as Mabel Dodge Luhan, their host. Cather sought a quiet, imagination-sparking place to work on the manuscript of her forthcoming book.

Cather is writing “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” (Clever play, Ms. Hallgarth, with that title for her own book.)

Mabel, a wealthy New Yorker, was a bohemian who made Taos into a magnet for artists and writers. Among the artists in Hallgarth’s novel are Andrew Dasburg and Nicolai Fechin. Walter “Spud” Johnson, a magazine editor/writer who lived in Santa Fe and Taos, is Mabel’s assistant. Hallgarth also mentions British writer D.H. Lawrence’s Taos home.

Through the lens of Mabel’s Indian husband, Tony Luhan, readers learn about the folkways of Taos Pueblo, and through the lens of other secondary characters, they learn about a fight for a federal law to convey to the pueblo the Blue Lake land an Anglo developer covets.

“I was trying to show (Cather and Lewis) coming to see a different culture here compared to what they experienced elsewhere,” said Hallgarth, a Corrales resident who has written scholarly articles about the two women.

Hallgarth is also comparing their experiences with the mid-19th century cultural differences that the French-born Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and vicar general Joseph Machebeuf encountered in New Mexico. They are the protagonists of “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”

“Archbishop Lamy is, in her mind, someone who comes to this country with a very strong French culture and who tries not to impose it on the different cultures here but to learn, to kind of fuse things, hold them all as equals,” Hallgarth said.

Lamy draws the line with the beloved, freewheeling Padre Antonio José Martinez, whom Lamy excommunicated.

And what of the novel’s mystery element? Willa and Edith are appalled that the death of a woman in rural Taos the previous summer remained uninvestigated. And now there are new deaths – two women found beheaded.

Sheriff William Santisivan is indifferent about solving the murders.

Are the women pawns in a white slave ring out of Angel Fire? Willa, Edith and Mabel aim to find out.

Enter an Albuquerque-based FBI special agent to investigate. Meanwhile, Tony Luhan ——not the sheriff ——heads a posse (of pueblo men) in search of two horsemen who wounded the FBI agent, and a mysterious third man who set up a hunting camp that Willa and Edith discovered.

“Death Comes” is Hallgarth’s second Cather and Lewis mystery. The first was “On the Rocks,” set three years in the future on Grand Maman Island, off Maine, where the couple built a summer home.