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Nichols details past, inspirations

‘Milagro’ author writes about genesis of social conscience in memoir

Authors rarely give their audience a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes and an honest look at the agony that is the writing process.

They flirt with readers by giving them tiny hints as to who they really are with every novel, poem and short story they write.

John Nichols gives his readers everything they could ever want and so much more in his latest memoir, “An American Child Supreme: The education of a liberation ecologist.” The book reads smoothly and gives you a detailed look at the man who wrote one of the greatest New Mexican novels, “The Milagro Beanfield War.”

Nichols’ self-deprecating humor shines as he treats his reader like a best friend taking a walk with him down memory lane, recalling the highs and lows that have shaped his life. With refreshing honesty, the author admits his faults and notes the arrogance that has driven him to write.

“An American Child Supreme” is part of Milkweed Edition’s Credo Series. A credo is a statement of belief, an assertion of deep conviction. The series offers contemporary American writers whose work emphasizes the natural world and the human community the opportunity to discuss their goals, concerns and practices.

That sets the stage for a very politically-oriented memoir, which one would already expect if they’ve read any of Nichols’ more popular New Mexico series on land grant and water right battles.

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Nichols refers to himself as a liberation ecologist, but does not focus exclusively on environmental issues. He explains that he was inspired by his father and grandfather to examine the human environment in every sense. Nichols has passionate feelings about the natural world, but also is driven by the need to understand and tell the story of the human condition.

He outlines his belief that we live in perilous times. Nichols recognizes that we live in an era of financial prosperity and are relatively free from the bloodshed that marked the era of world wars, but he still is unhappy with the environmental and social self-destruction of humanity we see today.

Nichols offers, by far, the most levelheaded approach to environmental and social analysis. He does not fall into any left or right wing traps and isn’t blinded by ideology. He simply retraces his life and shares with the reader the life-changing moments that defines who he is as a writer.

Nichols already had a social conscience early in life, but he was so focused on writing the great American novel that he never really examined his instincts to recognize and correct inequality beyond the written word. He explains that he was fresh out of college, self-absorbed and only cared about his writing.

A trip to Guatemala to visit a friend from college in 1964 changed his life and was a social-political awakening. Nichols was taken aback by the disparity the likes of which he had never seen before. He was horrified and in awe of people who survived in a destitute environment ravaged by poverty.

Worse yet, he realized that the long arm of the U.S. government had helped institute the disparity and squalor that humble Guatemalans suffered under.

From that point on, Nichols was on a mission to chronicle such disparity and inequality everywhere he found it. That later brought him to New Mexico, where he lives today, to chronicle the land grant and water rights struggle that has marked this state since 1848 and the advent of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

In an age where the myth exists that only minority writers can justly cover minority issues, Nichols has turned that idea on its head by proving that he can write some of the greatest novels to date on such topics. In “An American Child Supreme: The education of a liberation ecologist,” he shows us exactly how he did it.

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