I am Miguel. For most people it does not make so much difference that I am Miguel. But for me, often, it is a very great trouble…[W]ith Gabriel, everything that he wants he can get. With Pedro, it is the opposite. Everything that he has is enough. Both of them are very happy.
But to be in between, not so little anymore and not yet nineteen years, to be me, Miguel, and to have a great wish — that is hard.
I had such a wish. It was a secret and yet not a secret. For how secret can you keep high mountains that one can see for hundreds of miles around, mountains that face me when I first open my eyes every morning and are the last thing I see in the night.
This was my wish, to go up there — into those mountains that are called the Mountains of the Sangre de Cristo.
In our family there is always one thing, and that is the sheep…For that is the work of our family, to raise sheep. In our country, wherever you find a man from the Chavez family, with him will be a flock of sheep. It has been this way for many years, even hundreds, my grandfather told me. Long before the Americans came to New Mexico, long before there was any such thing here called the United States, there was a Chavez family in this place with sheep.
…about the Sangre de Cristo Mountains…If you are ready and the time comes, then that’s all. You will go. To get to be ready, it is first necessary to be of my family, a Chavez, and that I have come to be without even trying. Then, one must be a shepherd and know all about how to take care of the sheep. It is likewise a help to know how to bake bread and be a good cook as well as to ride a horse and shoot a gun and catch fish. When you can do these things then you are ready. And all that must be done then is to wait until the time comes.
Miguel Chavez is twelve years old — too old to be content to stay home with the little ones, but too young, in the eyes of his father, to trek up with the men into the mountains and remain there, all summer, pasturing the sheep in those lush alpine meadows. The great longing of his heart is to prove himself capable of that journey. Truly, his bones fairly ache with it. The chance to go only comes once a year. Miss it, and you have another very long year to wait.
Therefore, Miguel sets out with a passion to demonstrate his zeal to work hard, his strength, his dependability, in the months leading up to the annual departure. Clearing the irrigation ditch, helping with the lambing, learning from grandfather what it means to be a true pastor — shepherd — to these muttonheaded creatures, aiding in the search for a missing bunch of sheep — Gabriel throws himself into each effort with such great heart. Still, his father does not agree that it is time for him to take the sheep to summer pasture.
Miguel resorts to prayer. He prays to their patron saint, San Ysidro. When his wish and prayer finally come true, though, it is at a cost that Miguel does not want to bear — his beloved oldest brother is drafted into the army, making
room for Miguel to become a full-fledged shepherd. There is some soul-searching to be done before Miguel finally, with quiet joy, takes his place among the Chavez men.
Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1954, this superb story was written after Joseph Krumgold spent time with the Chavez family making a documentary film for the State Department. There is an incredibly rich authenticity of details and perspectives here, from the vast wisdom of this family in all matters of shepherding, to the daily life and festivals of this region, and the descriptions of the land itself. Miguel’s voice is tremendously appealing as he narrates the story, causing us to root for him in his quest.
I continue to read through the old Newbery lists searching for treasures I’ve missed and I must say, this is a treasure. It totally transported me into this setting and the life of this immensely likeable boy. Besides being such a well told story, I loved the fact that here is a boy whose aspirations are hard work and great responsibility. This, to him, is the sign of being a grown man. He has a father and grandfather and brothers and uncles who are, for him, wondrous role models of respectable, hard work. He lives amidst generations of continuity at this honorable lifestyle. Even as he waits to be old enough to do the work he dreams of, his tasks are real and essential to the livelihood of his home. These pieces are sadly missing for so many of our children today, and deprive them of the inherent dignity of work, the deep satisfaction of responsibility. It is a pleasure to read Miguel’s story, and offers much food for thought.
The vast majority of this book is highly accessible to ages 8 and up, a bit younger, even, if read aloud. There are several passages of philosophical, spiritual musings between Miguel and his brother which will challenge young readers.
I’ve also discovered the original black-and-white documentary by Krumgold on Youtube. I’d recommend it after reading the book. It moves much, much more slowly than the Pixar films we’re used to 🙂 but there are great glimpses of some of the elements of Miguel’s life which are interesting to see after reading about them — dressing an orphaned lamb in the fleece of another, marking ewe and lamb with matching numbers, processing through the village on San Ysidro’s day, traditional dances, and much more.
Here’s the Amazon link: