Playing for Pancho Villa

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Reviewed by James Tipton

Good Reading

Playing for Pancho Villa
By Sterling Bennett
Libros Valor, Mazatlan, Mexico, 2013
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback

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The year was 1916. Young Frank Holloway “got mercury poisoning working in the Silver Creek Mine in Mogollón, New Mexico.” To recover his health, his doctor told him to get away and go have “an adventure.”

And so… perhaps lacking judgment because of the mercury poisoning, Frank opted for danger as well as adventure. On Tosca, his beloved mare, he rode south, and fifty miles west of El Paso he crossed the border into Mexico.

Frank, “with a fool’s luck, managed to pick his way… between horse thieves from both sides, the Texas rangers who pursued them, Pancho Villa’s Dorados, General Pershing’s 6,000 gringo troops who were chasing Villa after the raid at Columbus, New Mexico, the Carrancista forces who were maneuvering to block Pershing, weapons smugglers who supplied all sides, common bandits with scars across their eyebrows and twitching hands, private agents who protected the alfalfa and coal supplies, horses, mules, and even locomotives for American and European mining operations and finally the occasional outlaw Apache — banished long since from their tribes for crimes against their own people….” That’s enough for any lone traveler to deal with!

Two weeks into Mexico, Frank shot a hungry Carrancista officer who had just shot a young boy with a limp, who was out caring for his goats. Frank’s own almost spontaneous action plunged him into other situations and dilemmas: “He wished he had not fired at the man. He wished the man had not wanted mutton and then drawn his pistol on a boy who limped. He wished the boy had not thrown stones, or even been there.”

After the boy, not seriously wounded, was cared for, Frank washed in the stream, while the boy’s mother, apparently a widow, washed his shirt and trousers. Later, under a U.S. Army blanket, she hugged his naked body all night long, while her own mother and her own son slept on pallets next to them.

In addition to danger at almost every turn, Frank, as he continued his adventure, also continued to come across fascinating Mexican women, two in particular: Doña Mariana (of the narrow waist and long green dress) and the heroine-addicted Sofía de Larousse. He was not particularly experienced with women, as passages like this suggest: “He had never touched a woman’s shoe with a woman still in it.”

He also met, several times, Pancho Villa himself, and only because he could play the piano (Alexander’s Ragtime Band) did Villa spare his life. In a later confrontation, the frustrated Frank admonished the mercurial Villa: “With all due respect… I wish you could ask us for something without threatening to kill us.”

The whole story is told, incidentally, by Frank’s grandson Liam Holloway, who had heard many of his grandfather’s stories, “which interested no one in the family,” and who, with his sister, had recently discovered a steamer trunk in the old barn, filled, of course, with his grandfather’s old notebooks and letters. This is a common story-telling device, and it still works for me.

Frank does have “a girl back home,” Rosa María, but she is not a developed character. We do hear that Frank had never been “inside her” because she “required something more formal.” In fact she seems, at least for the course of this adventure, to be of little concern to Frank. Frank finds himself far more interested in Sofia de Larousse, who, even in the midst of the life-threatening mayhem of the Mexican civil war, made him feel something “he had never felt before.” To make room for her on his bed, “he lifted the Winchester and put it on his other side.” He begins to realize that knowing a woman “was not always possible and not even necessary, if there was friendship and respect.”

In addition to these two fascinating women, both strong in different ways, we also meet the wise and wonderful Chinese man, Mr. Wu, talented with needles and arrows, and the devoted and philosophical young doctor, Juan Carlos, who had also rescued a young boy, shortly after his father was killed in battle. In their efforts to survive the chaos of the civil war, the lives of all of these characters become more and more connected and intertwined.

Playing for Pancho Villa has a feeling of authenticity to it which I assume is because the author, who lives in Guanajuato, knows Mexico well… and of course because he is a thoughtful observer and a natural story teller. There are a few flaws, but nevertheless Sterling Bennett tells a good story and, as in all good stories, his principle characters are ones we come to care about; and, indeed, we feel their absence for awhile after we have finished the novel.

Published or Updated on: July 24, 2013 by James Tipton © 2013
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