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Backlands by Michael McGarrity

A few years ago one of my favourite authors of mystery novels, Michael McGarrity, wrote a book titled Hard Country. Thinking it was a new installment of his mystery series featuring Santa Fe detective Kevin Kearney, I started reading. After a few chapters, realizing it was not the mystery I expected, I put it aside, disappointed. But the characters stayed with me – and I picked it up again because I just had to know what would happen – and thoroughly enjoyed what was essentially a novel about the early settlement of New Mexico in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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This year we have the sequel, Backlands, continuing the story and returning to the ranch in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico where the Kearney family made their home.

We meet again Emma Kearney and her son, Matthew, now living in town so that Matt can attend school after the divorce of his parents.

Matt’s father, Patrick, is a man who worked hard – but also drank hard, and proved to be a mean and violent husband and father. Emma protects her son as best she can, and does all she can to ensure that he can have a future away from the family ranch if he chooses to do so.

Backlands is a novel about family, love, disappointment, forgiveness, grief, and happiness hard won. We follow Matt and his family through the Great Depression, as many ranchers lose their land when they cannot find a way to survive during this time of drought. Woven into the story is the Roosevelt plan to get men and boys working for the Civilian Conservation Corps in a massive employment program that saw wages distributed to families across the country.

Matt and his father must find a way to work together to save the ranch, and to find forgiveness for all the years of hurt. The novel concludes with Matt’s wartime experience in Europe, and the changes that we know will come to the Tularosa basin, and the Kearney family, in the years to come.

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