The Song of Jonah
by Gene Guerin
University of New Mexico Press, 2008
‘A mixed and unsettling atmosphere colored the rest of the day. The procession after Mass, with the santo carried on its pallet along a path lit by kindling fires that snapped and spit resin, was for some a triumphal parade. For others it was a slow, solemn march with funereal undertones.” (p. 163)
For most of us there is no storm, no water, no rescuing fish, let alone a clear God-like voice telling us where to go and what to say. The avoidance of obligation, duty and responsibility is a universal characteristic, and the priest in this story, Jon Armitage, is gradually, through circumstances, ordinary in themselves, driven toward doing his duty with a glad heart.
He, a handsome, pleasing priest comes to be assigned to the Siberia of New Mexico in a serious of gaffes he makes along the way. Naturally he feels little kinship to the small dirt farmer he is a pastor to.
Of course, Gene Guerin’s book includes interesting characters: the prostitute with a heart of gold, a mystic with a mission to protect the past; hippie users of the system; a good ol’ boy Texan so familiar to us all. These characters, on the periphery of Father Jon’s life, gradually lead to an epiphany for him. Then, of course, the developer comes along with big promises, big plans for the small community, but Father Jon is having none of it.
His efforts to disabuse his parishioners of their superstitions does not have the effect hoped for.
Guerin has brought the old story of Jonah to New Mexico. He has done a masterful job with his insight into church politics, and his depiction of the go-getter outsider developer is right on. The story of Jonah and the whale is a familiar tale. Jonah knows what he should do but doesn’t do it.
Jonah was told to go to Nineveh and tell the people there that their lives were so wicked that the city would be razed if they didn’t change their ways. He didn’t want to go. He got on a ship and tried to leave behind the duty he’d been assigned, but he couldn’t get away from his responsibility.
Eventually Jonah is thrown off the ship into a huge storm where he is swallowed and later is spewed up on the land. After an experience like that he figured he’d better go and tell those worthless people what was in store for him.
The people listened: the people including the king changed their ways. Now this was a bitter pill for Jonah, who wanted to see the city destroyed. Jonah is chided by God for his indifference to the potential suffering of the people and animals of Nineveh.
In like manner, Father Jon Armitage did not want to go to Nueve Nios. He hadn’t wanted to go to Santa Fe but he had to go because of pressure from a wealthy parishioner. He was sent to Nueve Nios because he accidentally ran afoul of the archbishop and the monsignor. The town, located on the plains 40 miles from Clayton and close to Springer, Wagon Mound and Raton, has been neglected by the church and everyone else.
Father Jon came to Nueve Nios with a terrible attitude. He resisted his assignment with anger and coldness, but in spite of his plan to be so unpopular that he would have to be reassigned, he became liked by the people. Fortunately, he finds out about an art scam that gives him an edge in the battle over the potential development of the town and lake.
Gene Guerin was born in Las Vegas, N.M., in 1938. He won the Premio Aztlan award for his book Cottonwood Saints.
Bonnie Coppock Trujillo, a voracious reader, teaches school in Springer.