With the approach of fall weather arrive two new Texas novels appropriately themed for the autumnal holiday season.

Published in September, Valley of Shadows by San Antonio author Rudy Ruiz is described by Blackstone Publishing as magic realism that mixes the traditional Western genre with Southern Gothic and horror.

The Fifth Daughter of Thorn Ranch by Fredericksburg author Julia Brewer Daily, to be published Nov. 1, brings mystery and suspense to a family that has owned its West Texas mega-ranch for generations.

Valley of Shadows

A common saying among those of Mexican heritage in South Texas is “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

In some cases, that is literally true.

Author Rudy Ruiz took one such historical occurrence as the basis of his new novel Valley of Shadows, a prequel to his 2020 novel The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez.

The Ruiz family history in the Rio Grande Valley predates meteorological records, but Ruiz recalls talk of an 1850 hurricane that caused massive flooding of the Rio Grande, changing the course of the U.S.-Mexico border that had just been drawn in 1848.

He imagined an established Mexican lawman, Solitario Cisneros, who suddenly lost his status, land and family when the river moved south of his property and he suddenly found himself a U.S. citizen.

The story connects the past to the 1950s-era Fulgencio Ramirez character who inhabits the fictional border town La Frontera but takes on the tone of a horror tale with the further exploration of a family curse that has haunted the family for generations.

The curse “has to do with what happens when you belong to a place and you don’t see borders, and suddenly powers from outside … come in and institute disorder” in creating an artificial border, he said.

The dislocation and violence that result can inflict multigenerational personal and cultural trauma, whether or not those affected are aware of the history, Ruiz said.

A request from his son challenged Ruiz to give the story a horror twist, and a family trip to West Texas provided the lonely, windswept atmosphere he needed to imagine Solitario’s situation.

“I found the desert an even more isolated, more desolate border region,” he said, adding that it was “very evocative and very inspiring,” for his novel.

The troubled history of the border regions also figures into the more horrifying aspects of Valley of Shadows, including the La Matanza massacres and the Porvenir Massacre near the town of Valentine, memorialized with a Texas Historical Commission historical marker.

Ultimately, Ruiz said he hopes to turn those horrors into triumphs, at least in his fictional world. Those massacres “inspired me to imagine a world where the unheard voices of the Native American and Mexican American communities of the time could be brought to the forefront and cast as heroes rather than only villains and victims.”

The Fifth Daughter of Thorn Ranch

When author Julia Brewer Daily moved to Texas from her lifelong home of Mississippi, she and her spouse explored the Hill Country and attractions in San Antonio before settling in Fredericksburg, where she turned her novelist’s eye to her new surroundings.

Author Julia Brewer Daily novel The Fifth Daughter of Thorn Ranch focuses on ranch life and the difficulties that come with it.
Author Julia Brewer Daily novel The Fifth Daughter of Thorn Ranch focuses on ranch life and the difficulties that come with it. Credit: Courtesy / Books Forward

Her second novel The Fifth Daughter of Thorn Ranch “shows how enamored I am with the generational ranches here,” Daily said. At 1 million acres, its fictional ranch is even larger than the famed 850,000-acre King Ranch, which she visited during her research.

In meeting the ranch owners, Daily said she learned “to see the human element” that is sometimes lost in written accounts of Texas ranching. Her research included “interviewing people that actually lived there years ago, and up to the present,” and learning what the ranch economies are like now and how difficult it is to maintain these ranches.

The difficulties of ranch life drive the novel’s young protagonist Emma Rosales, the “fifth daughter” of the title, to consider relinquishing her heiress responsibilities when she inherits the property.

To clear her head, she plans a weeklong solo camping trip “to the outermost regions of the vast property,” anticipating “a relaxing adventure.”

However, her parents’ European vacation is interrupted by a call from their housekeeper Flora, and they learn what we already know: “Emma’s missing.” They imagine the hazards of their property, including steep cliffs and caverns “as spectacular as the Grand Canyon.”

Those caverns hide people living on the property unbeknownst to the family. Are they friends or foes? Will they help or hurt Emma, and how will she find her way back home? Her discovery reveals “an ancient web of secrets that won’t let Emma out alive without a fight,” according to a blurb promoting the book, and sets the stage for a Wild West-style adventure.

Hollywood media agents have expressed interest in the story as the basis of a streaming television series, Daily said, which could explore not only Emma’s story but those of the fourth, third, second and first daughters of Thorn Ranch. She said a woman-centric narrative of Texas ranch life would be a welcome addition to the normally male-dominated genre.

“There’s the woman owner from the first daughter all the way to the fifth daughter,” Daily said. For the moment, readers can follow Daily’s fascination with the mixed cultures of Texas through Emma’s story.

Both Valley of Shadows and The Fifth Daughter of Thorn Ranch are available through Bookshop.org or locally through The Twig Book Shop and Nowhere Bookshop.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...