These two books have a common goal -- to distill and extol traditional ways of life already largely eclipsed by modernization. One takes us on a meandering voyage down the rainy, forested coast of British Columbia; the other scans the human landscape of America's arid Southwest. Both books portray people enveloped, and enobled, by history.
In "Coast of Many Faces," Ulli Steltzer's photos capture the nuances of life in isolated fishing villages, logging camps, and mill towns. Teamed with Catherine Kerr's culling from what must have been reams of interviews with the residents of these places, the pictures become eloquent.
Round-faced Indian children tell of sadness at having to leave their villages for months at a time to attend far-off schools. Village elders reminisce about the freedom and natural bounty of past years.
Page by page, you begin to know these people, whose lives cling, geographically and socially, to the fringes of what most of us would call "modern society." Theirs is still an existence more regulated by nature than by time cards or commuting schedules.
It may sound idyllic. But a few words from Fred Letts, a fisherman out of Oona River on British Columbia's north coast, puts things in perspective: "People say that in the city you get in your car and go. We have to look at the tides: if the tide's not high, we don't get out. But is that any different from looking at a plane or train schedule?"
Even granting that, the people of the "Coast of Many Faces" do have something different and valuable. Whether it's the fisherman responding to the tides, or the young Indian responding to nearly forgotten cultural currents, this is a life stripped of most nonessentials. And that, to a good many readers, will undoubtedly seem something well worth preserving -- and perhaps even envying.
"People of the Sun" takes us 1,000 miles to the south to pay tribute to three figures who've given the American Southwest much of its piquant cultural flavor -- the Indian, the Hispano, and the cowboy. The history and character of each is insightfully sketched by Mark Simmons, a historian who has spent most of his life sifting through the cultural sands of New Mexico.
Through his essays, we get to know such colorful individuals as Grandma Quintana, the Pueblo Indian matriarch who thinks nothing of traipsing, solo, all over the state to find a good trade for her beadwork. And the historical data can be quite fascinating in itself -- the beginnings of the Southwest's cattle baronies, for instance, or the Conquistador lineage that distinguishes the New Mexican Hispano from the more recently arrived Chicano.
Throughout the book runs a current of nostalgia, of regret. Both essayist Simmons and photographer Buddy Mays, whose memorable portraiture follows each prose installment, try to enlist our sympathies for patterns of life that are, as the subtitle puts it, quite "out of fashion" in today's booming Sunbelt Southwest.
By and large, they succeed. The faces caught by Mays's camera do their own kind of persuading. And who wouldn't give at least an inward nod of agreement to this line from one of Mr. Simmons's essays: "The image of the man on horseback -- strong, taciturn, competent, and at peace with himself because he was working at a job he was born to do and wanted no other -- continues to haunt us."
For those so haunted, either of these books has a good deal to offer.