The Shelf: Melanie Sumner

Teresa Weaver on Georgia writers

Melanie Sumner

A cavernous sense of loss permeates The Ghost of Milagro Creek (Algonquin Books, $13.95 paperback), a tragic story of love and heartbreak and consequences set in the barrio of Taos, New Mexico. The title may refer to the incandescent spirit of Ignacia Vigil Romero—a Native American medicine woman (or witch?) who wields power and influence even from the grave—but another ghost haunts the pages of this luminous novel. Author Melanie Sumner, a native of Rome, Georgia, was living with her husband, David Marr, in the spectacular painted desert of Taos when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Within two years, he was gone. “Somehow the landscape I was writing about became imbued with his reckless and noble spirit,” Sumner says from her home in Rome, where she lives now with her two children. Sumner’s prose is a soulful tribute not only to her late husband, but also to the colorful cultures that define the contemporary American West. Her multigenerational story is captivating from the first page, and her gift for observation flourishes in the desert heat. “She wore high heels that could shave off a man’s ear, and she looked like she wanted to,” Sumner writes of Rocky, a mysterious girl capable of inspiring suicide (or murder) among blood brothers Mister and Tomas. “Silence surrounded her like a coming storm.” Through police reports, eyewitness accounts, and caseworker interviews, Sumner constructs a tragedy as she crafts an indelible portrait of a community in quiet crisis.

Sumner on . . .

Linguistics I am white, white, white, and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish when I began writing this book. In Rome, I befriended a tree cutter from Belize who calls himself Jaguar Chenko. One summer, Jaguar let me follow him around with my notebook. He’d scramble up a tree with a machete in his teeth (okay, in his belt) and hack away, with the cell phone on his ear. I’d say, “How do you say, ‘She was hot’?”

Common Threads Just as there’s always a Southerner in my story, no matter where it’s set, there’s always a matriarch. There’s something about the way a woman of a certain age tells a story—I can lean back into it.

Setting I have this strange need to miss a place before I can write about it. My longing for New Mexico inspired The Ghost of Milagro Creek. My next novel is set in Alaska, where I lived for two years in the late nineties.

Southern Roots We have a past we can’t get away from. We tell stories. We love the music of the English language and tolerate ambiguity, perhaps even court it. We’re like rich people who have been very poor, or poor people who have been very rich. I do consider myself a Southern writer, but I’ll end up in New Mexico.

The Transition from Wife to Widow Soul mate. Soul mate gone.

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Photograph by Soo Keith