God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre by Richard Grant. New York : Free Press, 2008. 288 pp.
Ever wonder what it’s like to be hunted by cocaine-fueled, drunken banditos through some of the harshest terrain on the planet all because these “hundred percent killer(s)” want to “please the trigger finger”? Neither did Richard Grant, but he found out. And that’s the just the prologue to God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre.
Grant readily admits he was warned. The Sierra Madre mountain range is approximately 700 miles long and is home to inhospitable canyons, vertical copper-hued ascents and some seriously dangerous characters. It is where Geronimo led his Apache warriors to escape the pursuing U.S. Army; where the Tarahumara fled from Spanish colonialists, rarely to be seen again; and where narcotrafficantes grow their crops and rule over the landscape Grant found himself.
Grant expertly weaves the tales of the few who explored this country before him with the scenery he travels through. He meets descendants of the Mormon polygamists who escaped over the border to continue to practice their lifestyles. He searches for a cache of gold hidden by a strange gringo who came south “for his health” and witnesses a Tarahumara Holy Week celebration that resembles more of a bacchanalian marathon directed by a Mexican Fellini. Above all, like Blanche Dubois, Grant relies on the kindness of strangers to guide him through this dangerous land, avoiding the suspicious eye and twitchy trigger finger of the ubiquitous drug mafiosos who are often high on their own supply.
Although technically a travel book, God’s Middle Finger reads like a piece of excellent fiction. Grant is taken in by several families and Sierra Madre natives who are sympathetic to his journey and provide insight into a culture rarely afforded to outsiders. He is both deeply touched by the hospitality he encounters and horrified by the pervasive machismo and casual violence. He dodges corrupt police who seem more the norm than the exception and tries helplessly not to stick out as prey. He meets ex-pats who have moved down and taken wives, naturalists hoping to save the dwindling old-growth forests, and teachers who travel by mule to one-room schools. The scorching and sometimes freezing mountainous climate challenges Grant physically, but the beauty of this vast terrain never fails to take his breath away.
Ultimately Grant finds himself literally running for his life and high-tailing it for the Estados Unidos border. His adrenaline-producing flight is palpable and leaves the reader feeling lucky to have escaped, but thankful Grant has taken them along for the ride.
James Downes is the Public Services Manager at the Mebane Public Library. You can reach him at [email protected] alamancelibraries.org.