Dust On My Heart
By Neill James
Book Review by Alice Hathaway
(Ed. Note: This is a review that we publish periodically to acquaint newcomers with some of the literary works of the woman who has been called “The God Mother of Ajijic.” Among many other things, Ms. James started the Children’s Art Program and also donated the land that now is the home of the Lake Chapala Society.)
You might wonder who’d want to read a book about Mexico that was written more than seventy-five years ago. But if that book is Dust On My Heart by Ajijic’s own Neill James, you’d be surprised how many people want to get their hands on a copy.
This book was originally published by Scribner & Son in 1946, the last in Neill’s “Petticoat Vagabond” series. Her adventure/travel books about native cultures in faraway places were best sellers during the Great Depression, when few people could afford to travel around the world. Sharing her adventures vicariously through books and lyceum lectures substituted for the real thing. When World War II curtailed the globe wandering of single women, Neill settled for a six-month exploration of remote regions in Mexico.
Research suggested several areas off the beaten track where she might need to travel by horseback, burro or on foot if they could not be reached by road or rail. She packed her sleeping bag, knapsack and notebooks and set out for Indian country to let the adventures happen. Meeting people, learning their history and taking chances provided the stuff for her wonderfully descriptive writing.
I wished for a map as I read the chapters about the Otomie Indians who live in land without water. I had never heard of Orizabita or Espiritu in the state of Hidalgo, where “seven-odd thousand Otomies derive their livelihood from the cactus.” The average earnings of five families encountered at random amounted to 19 cents a week, less than ten dollars a year. (This was 75 years ago, remember.) Neill was surprised to learn that even such a meager sum was taxed by 53%, and little was returned to the community in the form of roads, schools or medical services.
Always interested in schools, she recognized Mexico’s problem of educating the masses where the government had to deal with poverty-ridden, unlettered people steeped in 16th century European religious superstitions, who spoke a hundred languages and dialects. Their villages were situated at levels ranging from sea level to tree-line at 10,000 feet.
Neill James’ travel through the rural countryside showed that the Conquistadores who ravished the land in search of gold overlooked more mineral wealth than they took. She went to the mountains of Oaxaca where silver and mica were mined, to the Guatemala border in Chiapas, down to the coast at Veracruz, to Mitla and Monte Alban and back to Mexico City in November to join the Explorer Club’s winter climb of Popocateptl.
That adventure ended in disaster for the author when she slipped on the frozen descent and tumbled down the icy slope with the speed of an express train. When she dug in her ice axe, the speed of her falling body jerked her arm from its socket. Only the quick action of two young Mexican climbers stopped her near-fatal fall. They braced themselves in her path and caught her unconscious body against their rigid legs, risking their own lives in the process.
After months in the hospital and a long convalescence at a mineral spa, Neill had recovered enough to go to the emerging volcano near Uruapan. The incredible birth of a new volcano in the cornfield of Dionisio Pulido, a humble Tarascan Indian, was a new wonder not to be missed by the intrepid “petticoat vagabond.” With scarred face, useless arm and broken leg, supported by a crutch, she visited the exploding mountain on June 1, 1943, just 101 days after the advent of Paracutin Volcano.
A shelter had been constructed near the blazing cone to shield scientists and photographers from falling debris. Neill and her companions photographed the fireworks shooting out of the crater, then went to sleep on petate mats in the shed. At three in the morning, the roof collapsed under the weight of sand and ash. The central beam fell across Neill’s body, cracking her pelvis.
She spent the better part of a year in Mexican hospitals, unable to use a typewriter to complete the book she had come to Mexico to research. When she was able to travel, she sought a lower altitude and more salubrious climate in the little Tarascan village of Ajijic on the shores of Lake Chapala, where she found a few English-speaking artists and 2,000 Indian neighbors.
There is an old saying that “when the dust of Mexico has settled on your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.” Neill spent the last fifty years of her life in Ajijic, contributing her time and attention to the village where she had come to recuperate and finish writing her book. She was much loved and revered as the patroness of schools, libraries and the embroidery/weaving industries, all of which improved the lives of the native population. Neill James died just months short of her hundredth birthday.
(Final Note: Neill James wrote several other books, all published by Scribner and Sons. Some of our readers might remember that this same firm also published most of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. Our own Neill James was in pretty good company!)