A Southern road trip and border crossing

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Journeys figure big in the books reviewed for this column. Rough-sawn characters go on a wild ride through the Deep South in the first while in the second, a Mexican boy and his family make their way in the United States.

The Substance of Things Hoped For

Billy McLemore is a guitar player who is a farmhand by day. His drummer is on the outs with his wife. Then there’s his long-lost Uncle Bobby, who now calls himself Erastus and has that old-time religion thing going.

And, oh, Billy has a thing about snakes. He can’t stand them. Unfortunately, his uncle also has a thing about snakes. He likes handling them.

Author R.E.C. “Chipper” Thompson sends the trio on a road trip from Mississippi to the hollers of Appalachia, where his uncle hopes to reconnect with an old flame.

The three encounter interesting folks along the way and at their final destination. Snakes figure there as well among those who incorporate touching the reptiles and drinking strychnine as a show of faith.

Thompson, a Taos musician and artist, was born and raised in Alabama, so he writes with authority about the rural South in this debut novel. While he admits he didn’t attend a snake-handling service, he did do extensive research.

He also assembled an interesting cast of characters who tend to be long-winded, loud and a bit scratchy.

For instance, Billy finds his uncle using a motel iron to cook hot dogs he found in a Dumpster near the Jiffy Mart. “It works pretty good if the iron’s heavy an’ll go hot enough,” his uncle says.

I will admit it took some to grasp Thompson’s style of writing because he tends to throw a lot at the reader. But as I got into the novel, I enjoyed his descriptions and tales of the South.

Here’s one early on: “Billy McLemore has the weird, conflicted, lean, stretchy build of a chronically-undernourished, over-exercised hunter-gatherer, combined with the barest beginnings of a potbelly from too much batter-dipped, deep-fried food and beer. Golden-brown food. He wears tight jeans over pointy cowboy boots and a blue shirt, tucked in today, with a patch over the left pocket that says ‘Billy.’ It seems redundant, as every fiber of him screams Billyness.”

Billyness, indeed.

“The Substance of Things Hoped For” is a 277-page paperback costing $14.95.

Miguel Lost & Found: Journey to Santa Fe

Miguel Rivera is 5 when he rides his father’s (Crístobal) shoulders as they cross the Río Grande. His mother, Rosa, is pregnant with twins.

The Riveras make this dangerous crossing, naturally, in hopes of a better life.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Richard Cortés, a member of the INS Border Patrol, holds the record in his area for discovering illegal immigrants. He came to the U.S. illegally long ago, but that doesn’t soften his view about those attempting to do the same. It’s a secret even to his wife and son, Joey Jeter Cortés, who show open disdain for so-called wetbacks.

Of course, their paths intersect.

Author Barbara Beasley Murphy, who has written numerous books, gives middle-grade readers the opportunity to learn more about the plight of Mexican migrants.

As to be expected, life in the U.S. is not easy for the Riveras, financially and socially. (From a clue — the 2001 World Series — I date the family’s crossing at about 1997.)

Miguel encounters racism at school, including from Sgt. Cortés’ son and his unlikable wife, who is a substitute teacher. He feels very much alone, except for a few kindhearted souls.

In one scene, Miguel gives himself a pep talk while looking in the mirror. “I don’t have new clothes, face-in-the-mirror. See? I don’t look good to kids. So they hit me. I need a baseball cap. To be cool. Like the other kids. Not so poor. Joey Jeter has a baseball cap for every team in the U.S.”

After Crístobal disappears, Rosa supports her children by sewing as she moves them northward toward Santa Fe. Even in the City Different, Miguel encounters racism — and Joey Jeter, whose family has moved there. But he also learns about his heritage during visits to the Palace of the Governors.

Murphy does wrap things up a little too neatly at the end. A play on racial intolerance is held at Miguel’s new school. His father returns and suddenly Miguel’s biggest hater is nice. (I’m not going to spoil the plot.) But that might work well for young readers.

Terra Firma Books re-released “Miguel Lost & Found: Journey to Santa Fe,” which won the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award for Children’s Literature.

The 158-page paperback costs $14.95.

Livingston is a writer and reader living in Ranchos de Taos. For more, visit joanlivingston.net.

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