With the royal wedding over with and Barack Obama’s birth certificate released, I decided to visit Soda Springs.
I picked up Terry Marshall’s novel, Soda Springs, Love, Sex and Civil Rights, expecting to relive some old memories; I left it with eyes wide open.
Unlike many novelists seeking to portray a particular time in the nation’s struggle for equality, Marshall adds unique layers to his work. Even a chance contact with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is portrayed in an unusual way.
Probably the knowledge that Marshall is a “home town boy” from Center led to some expectations, and they were fulfilled, as the fictional Rick Sanders eventually fulfilled his dreams.
Soda Springs is an imaginary farm town where the community remains divided and at war with its own people, while the citizenry struggle to make ends meet, stay afloat, get an education and raise families in a place where there seems to be no way out.
The book is illustrated by Alamosa native and nationally renowned political cartoonist Chuck Asay, whose Christian conservative views make one wonder how he so accurately depicted life in Soda Springs.
A map drawn of the Soda Springs area leaves no doubt that it is in the San Luis, oops! Sangre de Cristo Valley. Alamosa is there, so are Hooper, South Fork, Del Norte, Monte Vista and… Soda Springs, right where Center ought to be. Even the sand dunes are there, though the names of La Veta Pass and Zapata Falls have been changed.
Marshall explains that he has taken these liberties with places in his novel to ensure that no one sees it as autobiographical. The people are fictional – all except Dr. King, whom Rick Sanders meets in Alabama.
He and college roommate Charlie McPherson essentially set out to experience the civil rights struggle in the south, where Charlie was raised. It was 1963, the year of Dr. King’s Birmingham marches and his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Rick learns some intimate lessons from his roommate’s mother and, eventually, some hard ones from his police officer father, then makes his way back out into an inhospitable world.
Immersed in the collegiate classroom and his commitment to Dr. King’s crusade, Rick gets word that his dad has been badly hurt in a farming accident and he must return to Soda Springs.
He does, but with a new set of eyes, opened by what he has seen in a place where there were three restrooms, men, women and blacks.
The book takes its reader to Soda Springs and introduces its people, based on the way each person views life in the small town and the valley area in general.
Marshall allows his reader to view Soda Springs through the eyes of those people, adding layers to a story that could have been a one-sided, bland tale, a coming-of-age novel about a college kid coming home, the “great white hope,” a small-town savior.
The book’s a page-turner, hard to put down, and even harder for one who lived in the San Luis Valley during the long, hot summers of protest, working for civil rights and picketing the lettuce fields.
Easily recognizable are the White House, now just a memory and a place for the people created in an old Studebaker garage. It’s not La Frontera, now Center Head Start, Marshall swears, just as the Sanders place is not Marshall produce.
Deftly painting a picture of life in Soda Springs, Marshall brings his characters to life, painting the nuances of relationships, the way the people think and speak, the old guard that believes prejudice and discrimination are acceptable, the people who loudly maintain it must end, the preacher’s wife, the coach, the teenaged Rick Sanders, the virginal Ginny Sue, the frustrated and disabled dad, corrupt and racist police, the town government and a simmering cauldron of social change that eventually boils over into violence.
We climb with Marshall up the town water tower where someone has painted “Ya Basta!” “Enough is enough,” warning the people of Soda Springs that things must change.
For anyone living in the San Luis Valley, this book is a must-read; for those who remember the passionate days of the 1960s, it’s an awakening to the fact that some things may have changed, but not necessarily for the better.
From “Native writes” — a column in The Valley Courier, Alamosa, Colorado
By Sylvia Lobato