As a German American explores the colorful landscape of the American Southwest, aspects of Spanish and English worldviews collide. With exquisite detail and stark honesty, Erika Schelby expertly weaves a story of culture, exploration, and belonging in this beautiful narrative. From ancient events to the modern day, from the tectonic plates below to the desert above, Schelby’s rendition of the region’s diverse histories is unlike any other.
Looking for Humboldt
Lava Gate Press
Looking for Humboldt & Searching for German Footprints in New Mexico and Beyond is a powerful blend of memoir, travelogue, and New Mexico genealogical exploration covering the author's quest to find her roots. In the process of forging new paths to historical understanding and making a new home, Erika Schelby creates a history that blends New Mexico's heritage with her own: "To make a home along the Rio Grande, I had to look, listen, pull back the layers of history, put things in a frame of reference, and fill in some of the empty spaces. This book is a record of doing this."
The first notable aspect of Looking for Humboldt is its wide-ranging blend of geopolitics, geography, history, and personal exploration. One simply doesn't expect maps, biographies of early explorers, and historical references in a personal, selective discussion of events that tie into one life. This satisfying approach, however, personalizes the broader notion of 'history' and brings with it a flavor of early German immigrant experiences and a sense of juxtaposing the familiar with the unexpected, expressed in a delightful quote that served as the author's own source of inspiration for viewing new concepts and processing them based on her own perceptions: "The real problem of a critique of our own cultural models is to ask, when we see a unicorn, if by any chance it is not a rhinoceros” (Eco, 1988)"
In adopting this approach to personal history, geography, and New Mexican culture in general and the figure of Humboldt in particular, Schelby's coverage documents movements, the turbulence of social and political events in the state, early experiences of Germans in the New Mexico Territory, and the evolution of social, political and legal processes affecting German immigrants in America: "The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the verdict 4:2, stating that the harmful effects of letting immigrants educate their children in their mother tongue was hostile to our own safety. Well, the one-room schoolteacher was a fighter, and so was his attorney, Arthur Mullen. The case went up all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Meyer won. In his decision, Justice McReynolds explained to the Nebraska courts, “Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful” (Meyer v. Nebraska, 1923)."
Given the 46 million present yet invisible Americans of German descent in this country, and the effects of Brexit, this documentary should be of special interest to more than a few.
She neatly traverses the line between personal experience and historical reference, including healthy doses of each to the point that a reader looking for a more linear production that is either history or memoir alone might find themselves immersed in more than they'd bargained for on either end. By that point (not too far into Schelby's journey), it should be more than evident that this book is not a singular production.
The personal travelogues, references, and insights are just as powerful as the historical background and provide many thought-provoking moments: "Summers in southern New Mexico are very hot, but winters are usually mild, often more like early spring. When passing near the Trinity test site where the first atom bomb was exploded, I have the eerie notion that here is an axis of our contemporary world."
The result is neither fish nor fowl, but a satisfying mixture of cultural experience and heritage and New Mexican history that will attract readers of both history and autobiography, especially recommended as a powerful 'must have' acquisition for any collection strong in New Mexican literature or German immigrant experiences in America.
LOOKING FOR HUMBOLDT
& Searching for German Footprints in New Mexico and Beyond
KIRKUS BOOK REVIEW
A deeply personal account of the imprint Germans left on New Mexico and the United States at large.
Schelby (Liberating the Future from the Past? Liberating the Past from the Future?, 2013, etc.) was born in Germany but on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain following World War II. She eventually made her way to New Mexico, a diverse, sprawling land with a colorful history that enchanted her. The author embarked on an eccentric quest to hunt down whatever traces of Germany had been left on the unfolding of the state’s history, a hunt that often focused on the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, a prodigiously talented Prussian who traveled extensively through the United States. Schelby’s tour of New Mexican history is quirkily impressionistic. She provides lengthy discussions on the birth of the state’s cultural diversity. When she reaches the first and second world wars, the author’s focus turns toward the depredations Germans suffered at the hands of its American hosts. She meditates affectingly on the peculiar discomfort such a multicultural nation experiences with otherness: “How can it be that the U.S., such a great country populated with resilient, hard-working, and mostly decent people, is so insecure?” Humboldt emerges as the star of the story: an impossibly erudite scientist who mapped and researched the American Southwest, dined with Thomas Jefferson, and won the praise of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Schelby openly intends her account to be a personal one sketched from an idiosyncratic perspective, and this has its limitations. In 1850, Germans made up less than a half-percent of New Mexico’s population. However, what she surrenders in comprehensiveness is made up by a historical miniaturist’s sensitivity—she delves nimbly into the cultural nuances of this protean polity, unearthing elements of New Mexico’s identity often overlooked in more formal portraits. Also, her vision for a more inclusive—and cosmopolitan—country is more heartfelt than bitter, the tough love of a genuine admirer.
A delightfully eclectic history told with charm and thoughtfulness.
Kirkus Indie, Kirkus Media LLC, 6411 Burleson Rd., Austin, TX 78744 firstname.lastname@example.org