In 1950s Arizona, Borden is a town divided — and Michael Shaw and Toni Garcia couldn’t be on more opposite ends of that divide. He is a wealthy white lawyer whose father’s legacy is weighing heavily on him, while she, a young Mexican woman, is fresh from college and stubbornly trying to prove to the people of her hometown — both white and Mexican — that she belongs.
Between them is Maria Sanchez Curry. A Mexican woman married to an abusive white man, Maria finally had enough and stabbed her violent husband in self-defense. Now Shaw is tasked with handling her case in court, and Toni must bridge the language barrier between the lawyer and his client. In doing so, Michael and Toni start to bridge the barriers between Borden’s Mexican and white communities, barriers with their own fathers and within themselves.
Twin Falls author Patricia Santos Marcantonio immerses readers in the fictional Arizona town stifled by searing heat and rampant racial tension. Her scenes engage all your senses. You can smell Bonita Ramirez’s fresh tortillas cooking and taste the fresh butter melting on them as the woman, a friend of Maria Curry’s, offers her testimony to Toni and Michael. You can feel the waves of dry desert heat and hear Borden’s belching metal mill, whose fine dust has poisoned Toni’s father.
Marcantonio, who has penned several other books about Idaho, Mexican culture and more, has a knack for detail that is intricately woven throughout plot. You get a taste for each character’s history — including Francisco Garcia, Toni’s father who spent his formative years as a migrant worker in Idaho. No character goes without some added color — not the Shaws’ hired help, not Toni’s nosy neighbor, not even the jurors.
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In some ways that rich detail works against Marcantonio. At times I found myself backtracking a paragraph or two, thumbing through pages to sort out whether Ted or Pete was a major character, a minor player or something in between the two.
But it’s also those many small details that swiftly carry the story along, keeping each sentence rich and interesting. The plot moves quickly as Marcantonio’s focus jumps from character to character and she digresses from the tense courtroom to Toni’s cozy garage apartment and back again. Dialogue between the characters is effortless and realistic, and, as Marcantonio notes, slips easily between Spanish and English.
“Verdict in the Desert” offers thinly veiled elements of romance, but the novel doesn’t task that thread with carrying the story. From the start, the chemistry between handsome, charismatic Michael Shaw and beautiful, fiery Toni Garcia is obvious, even a little overstated. But the murder case is what moves the book forward, serving as a platform to unpack complicated themes of family, race relations and self-reflection: Will a jury in a racially divided town acquit a Mexican woman of killing a white man, even in obvious self-defense? Can Michael Shaw fix his fractured relationships with his father and wife, made more wrought by his decision to pour his all into Maria’s case?
With so many heavy, complex elements to address, it’s the story’s ending that unfolds just a bit too quickly. For all of Marcantonio’s careful exposition, the final few chapters leaving you wishing there were just a few more pages’ worth of intricate scenes to hold on to — the mark of a truly riveting tale.
Nicole Blanchard is a digital/social media editor at the Statesman.