An Improper Love Affair in Old Tucson

Western Road Trip

Tucson fence made of octotillo branches
Tucson fence made of octotillo branches

Destination: Tucson, Arizona

Book: Teresa and the Cowboy:: un Cuento de Amor Tucsonense, by Mary Ellen Barnes

The book cover sandwiches a photograph of Tucson in the 1800’s– with its dirt streets and adobe buildings– between a closeup of white on white embroidery at the top and a leather chaps decoration at the bottom of the page. It is an artful way to portray the contrasting worlds of that period when some people (mostly women) were trying hard to bring civilization and propriety to a rough ranching country.  The book cover also makes clear that Teresa and the Cowboy: Un Cuento de Amor Tucsonenseis a novel.

That is a necessary distinction, since Mary Ellen Barnes has done her research carefully and given us a realistic picture, street by street of what the old Tucson looked, felt and smelled like. She also uses the technique of mixing real people into the story, although unless you’re familiar with Tucson history, you will probably think she’s inventing them  just like she did the main characters.

The bilingual title also gives the reader information about the town where Mexican, Spanish and “Americans” (actually from many countries) melded their cultures in the Arizona Territory. The author sprinkles Spanish language phrases throughout the book, and like the subtitle, they are generally easy to figure out even though I  only speak English. However from time to time I stumbled over a Spanish word, and would have appreciated a glossary.

Barnes has a charming idea for a story and a winning leading lady.  I can’t say I was as attracted to the cowboy as to Teresa. I wasn’t convinced that he was worth all that she went through for him, but I’m willing to allow that love does not always make sense. At 25, Teresa is a self-described spinster. She dutifully works in her brother’s mercantile business (where, like the woman in Dakota, she keeps the books for the family) and cares for her ailing and demanding mother. She shocks herself and family members when she goes riding in a carriage with the cowboy (who is much older than she is) without a chaperone. Because the novel is true to its time period, you’re not going to find any naked male torsos or heaving bosoms in this romance.

Presidio North Gate (Recreated)
Presidio North Gate (Recreated)

This is a first novel by Barnes, who previously wrote two non-fiction books: The Road to Mount Lemmon, a memoir of life in Summerhaven, near Tucson, and Forged By Fire: the Devastation and Renewal of a Mountain Community,  about Mt. Lemmon. Teresa and the Cowboy bears some marks of being a first novel, as well as some skilled writing, particularly of dialogue which clearly delineates the different characters.  Exposition comes obviously and awkwardly and the resolution of the story does not ring as true as the many historic details do. Here’s an example of how Barnes skillfully uses detail to portray the historic town.

A mule-drawn cart with a large tank on it slowly bumped along the street spraig water to lay dust.  A pack of yapping dogs scampered after a bicyclist.  Children played tag, darting among the few young trees struggling to grow on the rock-lined sidewalk, ignoring the horse manure, flies, spittle and cigar butts.  Adobe row houses cast long uneven shadows across the wagon-rutted road. …Old women in dark rebozos sat in wooden chairs outside their front doors to enjoy the cooler evening.

Mission San Xavier del Bac
Mission San Xavier del Bac

If you are on a road trip in the West that includes Tucson, you’ll surely want to take the historic walking tour of downtown, and visit the re-built corner of the Presidio (which even in Teresa’s day was pretty much a crumbling ruin). You definitely will want to visit San Augustine, where Teresa headed on that buggy ride, and take a trip out to the remains of Ft. Lowell (which had recently been relocated in Teresa’s day.) Although you sometimes have to look closely to see the remainders of Tucson’s past, Teresa and the Cowboy is a good reminder that Tucson has a long and rich history. You will still find many reminders today of the blend of cultures in this town that is so close to the Mexican border.

Historic Reenactment at Tucson Presisdio
Historic Reenactment at Tucson Presisdio

So if you’re a road tripper who wants to know who traveled the road before you–add Teresa and the Cowboy to your traveler’s library.

Here’s a bonus for travelers who love books about their destination. The Pima County/Tucson public library has compiled a list of 100 popular books about Arizona. Fiction, non-fiction and children’s books make up the list. Now there should be no excuse for Road Trip planners not to be well informed.

Disclaimer and credits.  The links to Amazon on this page allow you to easily purchase a book you’ve read about. But it also makes a few cents for upkeep on A Traveler’s Library. Thanks for following our links. All photographs are the property of Vera Marie Badertscher. Please do not copy without express consent.

Are you the kind of traveler who wants to know about the history of the place they are visiting?

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

2 thoughts on “An Improper Love Affair in Old Tucson

  1. That seems to be an interesting reading material! I am into period literature and this will hopefully add to my knowledge about Tucson.

  2. I think I might enjoy this book- especially after reading Elsie- it would be a bit more about that part of the US and around a similar time period.

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