Magical Realism and Soul-Searching Reflections: Exploring ‘Valley of Shadows’ by Rudy Ruiz

American author Rudy Ruiz was recently awarded the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction for his latest novel, Valley of Shadows. The son and grandson of Mexican immigrants, Ruiz takes readers on an enthralling journey across the vast desert expanse of West Texas, with beautiful prose, unforgettable character building, and a world filled with the spark of magical realism. 

The novel follows the story of a lonely ex-lawman called Solitario Cisneros. When the Rio Grande shifts course, the Mexican town of Olvido finds itself stranded on the US side of the border. Having lost his wife, his country, and his job, Cisneros has withdrawn to a ranch in the middle of the desert, where he lives a lonely existence with a few farm animals and ghosts long forgotten. 

While life goes on for the rest of the town, there is evil lurking nearby. The Anglo, Apache, and Mexican residents of Olvido wake up one morning to a series of gruesome crimes. With tensions simmering between the three ethnic groups, the townsfolk turn towards the one man capable of solving such a crime – Solitario Cisneros. Spurred on by a sense of duty, Cisneros sets off on a perilous journey to solve the mysterious crimes, accompanied by the captivating Apache seer Onawa. Little does Onawa know that as Cisneros struggles against the forces of evil, he must also battle internal demons conjured by a mystical family curse. 

An amalgamation of several genres, the idea behind Valley of Shadows was born from a seed planted by Ruiz’s son, who asked, “Dad, why don’t you write a Western horror story?” Inspired by the creativity of this innocent request, Ruiz sat down through the pandemic to produce what many are now calling a literary masterpiece. Valley of Shadows has truly captured the essence of what Ruiz imagines was happening in the tales he heard at the family dinner table, when his father and maternal grandmother recalled events from the past. “My maternal grandmother and my father were both great, natural storytellers that would share these amazing tales about their youth, the family, past generations, life along the border, and life in Mexico,” he said. “My grandmother was born in the year 1900, so the stories were just incredible yet real. Such a span, from living through the Mexican Revolution to telling me stories she had heard from her parents and her grandparents, who had immigrated from Germany to Mexico. It was fascinating.”

Born in Brownsville, Texas, and raised along the U.S.-Mexico border, Ruiz lived in Matamoros, Mexico for several years before his family moved back to the U.S. Inspired by events from history and his rich cultural heritage, Ruiz has often turned to literature to connect the dots from his past. 

While attending college at Harvard, Ruiz was introduced to the wonders of Latin American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Laura Esquivel. Falling in love with their use of magical realism to reflect upon a number of social issues, Ruiz began to think through what he wanted to do as a writer. “I felt that through a combination of culture and magical realism, I could capture aspects of American life that hadn’t been written about, especially in that way. That is what got me going,” he said. 

While Valley of Shadows is a mesmerizing tale filled with mystery and suspense, it is also an ode to what was often a violent and tragic past. A particularly memorable scene in the book was inspired by the Porvenir Massacre, which was an incident that took place in 1918 outside the village of Porvenir, in which Texas Rangers and local ranchers, with the support of U.S. Cavalry, killed 15 unarmed Mexican American boys and men. The victims had been accused of stealing cattle, but no evidence was ever provided and no due diligence or trail took place prior to their execution. In the wake of their deaths, their families fled in fear, leaving behind their homes and possessions. It took nearly a century for the injustice to be recognized by the Texan government, shining light upon the disparity that has existed for decades within border communities and throughout the Southwest.  

Ruiz sets many of his stories along the U.S.-Mexico border or in the Southwest, ranging from Texas to California, and embraces cultures and history through his writing. He immerses readers in this remote and magical place in Valley of Shadows, much of which was inspired by a trip with his family out in West Texas. “At my son’s request, my wife and I took him on a trip out to the desert in West Texas, and we were in places like Big Bend National Park and Marfa. I realized, oh, this is the place. The setting inspired me, and I thought, this is it. This is where I have to set the story.” While reading the book, one finds themselves changing with the mythical town of Olvido, as the riverbed dries up and dust blankets the streets and homes that once brimmed with vibrant colors. 

Ruiz has often tackled issues of cross-border immigration in his writing and has been active in social advocacy, particularly for traditionally marginalized communities and communities of color. “Even though I write fiction, I consider it what’s called socially engaged fiction. And some people sometimes might even have called it like protest literature,” he says. “I want to help readers see new perspectives or different perspectives on some of these issues, some of these communities, whether it’s Latino immigrants, the border, the refugee crisis on the border, some of those types of things, and humanize some of those issues for them, because sometimes in the news, it’s just very politicized and it’s very negative.”

By turning the Western on its head in Valley of Shadows, Ruiz has brought a fresh perspective to a genre that has traditionally glorified Texas Rangers and lawmen. Instead of a white savior, the protagonist in Ruiz’s novel is a Mexican immigrant, who is accompanied by a brilliant Native American woman. Even their combined gifts are not enough, however. In the end, they must also collaborate with like-minded Anglo settlers to save their community from the forces of racial distrust, greed, and evil. By showing that period through a different lens, Ruiz has succeeded in introducing a unique aspect of social justice throughout the novel while also providing readers with an immersive and thought-provoking experience.

According to the Texas Institute of Letters judges, who selected the novel for the Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Book of Fiction, “Rudy Ruiz’ Valley of Shadows is a masterful weaving of the best of American Literature: a realistic historical novel, a riveting, edge-of-your-seat Western thriller with a dose of horror and magic. Most of all, Rudy Ruiz’ simple, brilliant and penetrating writing transforms Solitario Cisneros’ struggle for meaning and redemption into an existential inquiry about the quest we must all undertake to save our world.”