Big Maria by Johnny Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is one of those books that I'll recommend to my friends as a must read. Big Maria is fun. It's got great characters, a clever plot, and lots of heart.
Three men set out on an unlikely quest, with no magical powers, modest intelligence, and barely a whole body between them.
Harry Schmittberger (you know what they called him in school) is a man who goes where life takes him, and that's usually into a drunken stupor. He's not a smart guy, but then he's never given himself a chance. Why should he try? With the name he's saddled with, the fates are aligned against him. But during his most recent drunk, he hears the word "gold" and starts to think the fates might shine on him yet.
Ricky McBride is a neighbor of Harry's in the Desert Vista trailer park. To support his wife and young daughter, Ricky drives an ancient bus full of senior citizens from Blythe, CA down to the Mexican border so they can walk across the border to buy cheap prescription drugs. It's not much, but it's the best employment available, considering he's never applied himself much.
Frank Pacheco is an Indian, as he tells Ricky, mostly a Chemehuevi, but really a mix, plus a little Mexican. Frank rides Ricky's drug bus to pick up drugs to medicate his cancer and cholesterol-ridden body and to pick up the occasional Cuban cigar, even though he can't smoke them.
On one of their drug trips, Ricky mentions gold to Frank and Frank relates the hundred year-old story of Abraham Constance and his Big Maria Mine. When Indians tired of Constance's paranoia over the theft of his gold and his killing of anyone with knowledge of it, Frank's grandfather killed Constance, and buried him, his papers and maps somewhere in the town of Picacho, which happened now to be under the waters of the Imperial Reservoir.
When Ricky relates the story to Harry, it becomes his grail. It doesn't matter that obtaining the maps under the waters of the reservoir might be problematic. It doesn't matter that Ricky, after a bus crash that killed six people and turned him into an alcoholic and separated him from his wife and daughter, is maimed and has use of one good arm. It doesn't matter that Frank's condition has worsened so that any extended activity leaves him breathless, and that he's almost under house arrest by his domineering daughter. It doesn't matter that if they find the maps, that they'll lead to the Big Maria mine amidst the carnage and hellfire of the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Grounds. To Harry, it is his fates driving him to his life's goal and it shall be accomplished with his new friends.
And so it is that the fractured trio sets out, marching like the fife and drum line of the Revolutionary War, to obtain their riches.
The group not only has to deal with the elements, mine fields and wild animals, they also have to deal with a number of zany characters. Among them is Frank's daughter, Mercedes, intent on tracking down the people who "kidnapped" her father from the hospital. Her two large and childlike sons, who survive on the proceeds of their marijuana business, tag along to help their mom, but primarily to get their two burros back that were borrowed by the trio for their excursion.
Johnny Shaw has infused Big Maria with humor, some of it slapstick, some of it irony, and sentiment. He has his trio show emotional growth and form a bond of friendship gained from their stressful experiences. Big Maria is a story that will touch your heart and your funny bone and make you look forward to the next book by Johnny Shaw.
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