Oct. 27—Not many thrillers start out by reciting the text of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
But The Ridge: A Land Grant Protest Turns Deadly (Sunstone Press), the latest novel by Peter Eichstaedt released in August, isn't just any thriller. The former Santa Fe New Mexican reporter drew on his love of the American Southwest and his journalism background for a crime novel that is as much about the fraught history of the region as it is about any misdeeds.
Eichstaedt sets his scene at a familiar location: the newsroom of The New Mexican, where Luke Jackson is an embittered veteran reporter struggling with cynicism and still smarting from a divorce that left him with only partial custody of his young daughter. He gets the opportunity to head out of town for a feature story on rural Hispanic New Mexicans who still practice traditional sheep-shearing methods but quickly gets more than he bargained for.
The ranchers are unhappy with what they say is the U.S. government unfairly restricting access to grazing land that should rightfully be theirs. They tell Jackson their original claim to the land was not honored after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American war and ceded large parts of Mexican territory, including New Mexico, to the U.S. Driven partially by passion and partially by desperation, they end up setting up an armed encampment and getting into a standoff with federal authorities.
The Ridge: A Land Grant Protest Turns Deadly by Peter Eichstaedt, Sunstone Press, 208 pages
Jackson feels sympathetic to their cause and also wants to get to the bottom of what he thinks might be government corruption putting its thumb on the scale against the ranchers. He gains some of the community members' trust enough to be able to camp out on the land with them and ends up becoming embroiled in the chaos far beyond the bounds of journalistic professionalism.
Along the way, he also bonds with a troubled younger woman named Ariel living in a rough part of town, tries to spend more time with his daughter, Luna, and attempts not to upset his editors, some of whom seem more upset about missed deadlines than the fact Jackson could be putting his life in danger.
The story isn't without its flaws. Eichstaedt hasn't seemed to update his concept of a newsroom for the digital age, and the book seems as though it's set in the 2000s, at the latest, until a jarring reference to the George Floyd protests near the very end of the novel. (Paper press releases are a thing of the past when every politician from here to Texas can just spam your email inbox instead.) His depictions of the current and former love interests in the book, and especially Jackson's ex-wife, also borrow from some of the more tired canards of crime writing.
However, the depiction of Ariel is more nuanced. Although she doesn't have the depth of character that Jackson has, her role in the narrative is much more than just sex appeal — and watching Jackson struggle with his desire to be present for her versus his duty to follow the story will be all too relatable for any reporter.
The most fully realized character isn't Luke, however, or any of the other humans that populate the pages. At its heart, New Mexico is the protagonist of this novel and more important to the plot than the characters. Although he now lives in Broomfield, Colorado, Eichstaedt's descriptions of the state, and the city of Santa Fe, show a deep familiarity with the Land of Enchantment.
"There's all this history that's kind of around us constantly," he says of what drives his love of New Mexico. "That's something that you don't really get a sense of when you're away from the Southwest."
Eichstaedt said the book was inspired by actual reporting he did on a land grant protest while at The New Mexican, where he worked for 25 years. "The New Mexican is definitely part of my history," he says.
The protest Eichstaedt covered didn't turn violent, but it remained impressed in his memory. At the time of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (signed in 1848), Mexico and the U.S. had different forms of land ownership that didn't transfer over well when the territory changed hands.
"Common ownership of land was not part of the American land ownership process," he says. "When this land became part of the U.S., there was a lot of vagueness. The lawyers who represented the railroad company filed titles and made representations of land ownership, which did not include the people who were living there."
That history has consequences even into the present day, as The Ridge and real-world events reveal. New Mexico hasn't been a part of Spain, or Mexico, for at least 175 years, but the proper way to recognize the region's Hispanic heritage still looms large over day-to-day life in the nation's oldest capital city.
Eichstaedt always thought the land grant protest would make a great story and embellished it for a novel. By the time he had a manuscript, he wasn't sure where to go, since he thought the issue might be a little too local to pitch to national publishers.
Luckily, he knew Jim Smith, the publisher of Santa Fe-based Sunstone Press, and reached out to see if the press might be interested.
"One thing led to another, and here we are," he says.
Eichstaedt says he has other ideas for Jackson in the works and has already started writing a second novel with the working title Half Life. This one calls on the Southwest's nuclear history as a jumping-off point, particularly disputes over where to store nuclear waste. (Jackson's editors are sure getting him into a lot of scrapes. Can't this man cover a nice and boring county commission meeting or something for once?)
Whether that one is published likely depends on the success of The Ridge, but he says that exploring the world of fiction writing has been a pleasure all its own — and he isn't likely to run out of material.
"It seems like there's always something to write about down in New Mexico," Eichstaedt says.