‘Under the Cottonwood Tree’ awakens imagination as brothers pay homage to northern New Mexico

Illustrations from the graphic novel “Under the Cottonwood Tree: El Susto de la Curandera.”

What began as a dream turned into a masterpiece for brothers Paul and Carlos Meyer.

“Under the Cottonwood Tree: El Susto de la Curandera” takes readers on a journey through the landscape, culture and colloquialisms that make northern New Mexico unique. The graphic novel is set in 1949 in the village of Algodones. Strange magic wakes the sleepy town when a boy transforms into a calf after taking a bite of an enchanted cookie. It is up to his older brother to find a way to change him back, which leads them on an enchanted adventure through a forest full of secrets.

The calf was a figment of Paul Meyer’s imagination. It was part of a dream after a day of corralling calfs that had gotten out of their enclosure. Carlos Meyer was raising the cattle in the large backyard where the brothers lived with their seven other siblings and parents in the then mostly rural North Valley in the 1970s. Paul’s dream inspired the short story “The Calf, the Caterpillar and Joey,” which was published in 1984 in Grito del Sol, a publication in Berkeley, California. Carlos Meyer later transformed the short story into a screenplay as an assignment for a writing class he was taking while attending New Mexico Highlands University, in Las Vegas. By that time, Paul Meyer had moved to Los Angeles, but soon the brothers would be together again, shopping the screenplay around Hollywood. Interest in producing the project gained traction.

“We had it greenlit for a certain budget, and then just like in Hollywood it fell apart,” Paul Meyer said. “I thought what can I do and how can Carlos and I take the story to at least some sort of fruition? So from then, eight years ago, I pursued some artists that could make it into a graphic novel.”

The brothers wanted the storyline to capture a true depiction of the communities where the Meyer children were reared in the North Valley and the small towns of northern New Mexico where their parents were born.

“My mom is from Anton Chico, New Mexico, and my dad is from Las Vegas, New Mexico,” Carlos Meyer said. “So they got together way up north, they got married and they moved to Mora, and that is, like, 30 minutes away from Las Vegas, up north. And, like, all these families, they needed to make a living, so my mom and dad moved to Alameda (in the North Valley). They bought an acre of land and they raised us all. At the time, it was just farmland; now it’s suburbia. … It was orchards and cornfields. This is where the story derived from, from my upbringing.”

Setting the story in the 1940s when their parents were growing up was deliberately done to capture the culture of their communities.

“Where our parents came from, it’s really a transitional culture, because it’s really these small villages that still were speaking Spanish, more of a Castilian-based Spanish, for hundreds of years,” Paul Meyer said. “Some of those villages are super-isolated, and they didn’t transition into speaking English until probably the 1950s. … We’re trying to capture a time and place that existed in the 1940s. We’re shining a light on that culture and remembering how our parents grew up but adding fantasy to it, of course, in a comic book form.”

Illustrations from the graphic novel “Under the Cottonwood Tree: El Susto de la Curandera.”

The illustrations needed to match the quality of the storyline, and after an extensive search, Paul Meyer found illustrator Margaret Hardy in Los Angeles. The characters in “Under the Cottonwood Tree: El Susto de la Curandera” are all family members. Paul Meyer would provide old photos of his family, and Hardy would transform their images into illustrations. Photo books of New Mexico in the 1940s also were used for reference of people’s appearance, clothes and more. Hardy, who is from St. Louis, was able to capture the signature landscapes of the Land of Enchantment with the help of Carlos Meyer’s son, Esteban, who took photos of the Rio Grande, the bosque and homes in the vicinity.

“He would go up and down the bosque and (take photos of) all these houses,” Paul Meyer said. “There is one house that is off of Alameda, and it kind of looked like the earth was reabsorbing the adobe. I think we used that for the basis of where the curandera supposedly lived in the forest there. Margaret was able to use

Illustrations from the graphic novel “Under the Cottonwood Tree: El Susto de la Curandera.”

Estaban’s photos, and she really captured the images well. She did a great job.”

“Under the Cottonwood Tree: El Susto de la Curandera” has received several accolades, including Best Graphic Novel, First Place, at the 2019 International Latino Book Awards, Best Graphic Novel, Gold Medal, at the 2019 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards and Best Graphic Novel at the 2019 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. A number of local bookstores have purchased many copies of the novel, with Bookworks selling out of its copies shortly after putting them on display. Due to the recent closure of nonessential businesses, in-person purchases, promotional signings and a book tour are on hold. The novel is available online in a number of formats, including hardcover, softcover, digital and PDF. To purchase or for more information, visit underthecottonwoodtree.com.

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