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“To soon, the setting sun would give it’s last rays of the day / We’d gather up our fishing gear and head off along our way.” “A Day with Aita” Descending Soldier Creek, Ruby Mountains.

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“Those summer days were perfect and the best times I ever had / Were sitting on the creekbank and fishing with my dad.” From My Mama Marie. Soldier Creek in 2013. All photos in this post courtesy of Daniel Montero.

My Mama Marie, written by Joan Errea, tells the captivating story of the author’s mother, Marie Jeanne Paris neé Goyhenetche, who emigrated from the Northern Basque Country to a remote part of Nevada where she succeeded in raising a family and building a life on the frontier.

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Then, the train stopped at a dusty little town. A sign on one of the buildings proclaimed that this was Currie, Nevada.” Currie Depot with the decaying Currie Hotel building in the background in 2013.

As Daniel Montero, Publications Editor at the Center, notes in his introduction to the work,  “My Mama Marie is a remarkable story. On the surface it is a fairly simple story written by a grandmother for her grandson about her own mother. However, I believe even more so it is the story of two girls who became two women, and two men who in very different ways influenced to a great degree the girls’ development, and the women’s personalities . . . Though the story is often funny, this tension, this battle of wills [between the two women] . . . serves as a metaphor for the process of immigration and assimilation, of leaving behind the old and embracing the new, all the while holding on dearly to the traditions, language, and ways of life of the Old Country.”

 

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“At the time, Eureka was the hub of the cattle and sheep industry. . . . On Weekends, generally, the boys would come into town from the ranches and sheep camps and there would be gatherings and dances. Many times she found herself still dancing at four in the morning.” The Eureka Hotel, Eureka, Nevada.

The compelling nature of the text itself, its detailed portrait of life in rural Nevada and the landscape that so clearly shapes the people who live there, is captured in this same vivid and engaging introduction, which I quote at some length:

“As we worked through the manuscript, I found myself more and more intrigued by the story, and, by extension, the places where this story played out. So, one weekend as we finished up the book’s editing process, I decided to retrace, as much as I could, the steps of My Mama Marie. The story had grabbed me, and I wanted to experience firsthand the places where it had taken place. So I drove east from Reno on Highway 50, the ‘Loneliest Road in America’.”

“I drove farther east, deeper into Marie’s history, to Currie. Now part of a ranch, I arrived in the late afternoon. The tracks remain, overgrown with desert weeds, the old depot, its windows broken and boarded up with plywood, and the two-story hotel, still retaining something grand despite its advanced decay . . . In my mind, I cleared away the ranch, removed the weeds from the tracks and in their place put a smoking locomotive, and a young girl stepping out, shielding her eyes against the glare and fearing that, after the green and lush Basque Country, she had stepped straight into the Inferno. Where the horse trailers were, I placed the team of horses handled by a young Basque man who, interested in the train’s arrival (surely a big event in the little stop’s day) put down his work and watched a pretty young girl disembark, and who then spoke to her in their shared tongue. A language spoken by very few in the world and jealously guarded and defended.”

“That night I camped at the mouth of Soldier Creek, where the Paris sheep bands had had their summer range . . . I returned to my camp late in the afternoon after wandering along the creek and among the ponds and lakes of the Soldier Creek Basin, following in the footsteps, I imagined at least, of young Joan and Aita, watching the big bands of summer fat sheep dotting the hillside and seeing the white tents of wagons of the big summer camp. The sun was setting and I walked through the shadows from Soldier Mountain and the high country of the Rubies before emerging again into the bright Nevada light. Walking through shadow and light, I thought of how each of the places I had visited had shed a distinct light on the story, making me realize how very special it is. How much struggle had gone into creating a life, and how much was both gained and lost by it. My Mama Marie has the ring of this, of the truth of these places, and the truth of real stories: stories not dressed up with the trapping of myth, but the real stories of people, hard-working people, who instead of seeing only despair and abandonment, chose to forge ahead and to create a life, and in the process to leave their mark on the land. They are, for me, the true testaments of this book, and the reason why it stands out in the memory.”

My Mama Marie will appeal to not just those with a generic interest in Old and New World Basque society and culture, but anyone fascinated by the immigrant experience in general, Western History, and, more specifically, women’s history.