Timothy J. Henderson, The Worm In The Wheat, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).
Confusing power shifts and agrarian struggles define the Mexican Revolution. Author and historian Timothy J. Henderson provides a fresh perspective of the period from 1906-1927 by weaving together historical context with the first-hand accounts of foreign-born hacienda owner Rosalie Evans. Evans returned to Mexico to maintain her land holdings despite post revolutionary attempts from all sides to grab them. Evans is a wily, unpredictable and anachronistic character who manages to strike fear and curiosity in men around her. While many revolutionary texts tend to center on central figures or leaders, Henderson takes a different approach. Evans’ is the outsider. Her foreign and gender status provides an objective, external lens through which readers re-evaluate the Mexican Revolution.
The result of our journey with Evans is twofold. First, Henderson wants us to question the revolution without using our pre-conceived notions. What are the true goals and end results? In the aftermath, who controls what? Who leads? The more we examine the fluidity of the time through the Evans experience, the more unclear these questions become. Take the shift from Obregon to Sanchez. Villagers are confused as to what to do and how. Henderson shows a lack of command structure; a lack of clear, cohesive goals and ideology. “As long as they were uncertain of the federal government’s ability to enforce its will – or of precisely what that will was – and as long as they lacked forceful local leadership, land hungry villagers could mount only the most tentative actions.” (Henderson, 102) The masses were desperately seeking leadership and vision. Unlike other revolutions, they have no specific rallying cry.
Second, readers build a sympathetic bond to Evans. She is, ironically, an anti-heroine. Readers find themselves cheering her on throughout the book, rather than cheering the revolutionaries. Most historical accounts glorify revolutionaries as heroes and their enemies as evil. In contrast, Henderson paints Rosalie as both hero and martyr for her cause, a universally accepted right to property.
Despite her gender, Evans’ did not shrink at the opportunity to lash out at President Obregon when she felt she was getting nowhere in the meeting. (Henderson, 119) Readers see Evans both benefit and lose from backroom deals, power shifts and political betrayals. Henderson’s use of Evans’ interactions with her nemesis, Manuel Montes, to show both her atypical bravado and machismo He also reveals the problem of personal power interests outweighing the needs of the masses during and after the Mexican Revolution. Montes, a short, Napoleonic figure, attempts to seize her land. Evans challenges him. According to Evans, “[I] outspoke him, calling him a coward, assassin and my whole wicked vocabulary of insults. He trembled with rage, but I got my hand on my pistol and he ran.” (Henderson, 100) Readers soon discover hints that Montes, out of revenge, was likely involved with the plot to murder Evans.
Yet, troubles with government officials are just the start for Evans. Henderson highlights Evans’ atypical machismo in defiance against repeated challenges to the integrity of her property boundaries, the demands of her mayordormo kidnappers and during the flag-capturing episode. (Henderson, 119 & 131) Additionally, she rides out to meet an “angry agrarista army with her pistol drawn.” (Henderson, 147) Later in the book, her partnership with George Camp again reveals her unusual role and bravado. She “took to packing an army issue Colt .45 pistol and a Winchester .30-.30 rifle” when riding with Camp to defend her land. She often made it clear to everyone that she would “only go out in a blaze of glory.” (Henderson, 181)
Together, Evans’ handling of enemies above and below her only buys time against a tide that is ultimately coming. In the end, Henderson gives a harsh and detailed reminder of the inevitable costs of revolutions and civil wars: chaos, death and disorder. Murderers violently gun down Evans in her coach. (Henderson, 189) Even in this turn of events, Henderson gives us no clear resolution. Typical of an era of uncertainty after war, justice remains fleeting at best. “The contending factions played so fast and loose with evidence and accusation that within days they had ensured that the truth would never come to light.” (Henderson, 191)
There are only two minor shortcomings on the part of Henderson’s The Worm in the Wheat. First, the casual reader may lose their way in this book. Many people find it easier to identify with central figures in the study of history. Henderson breaks this convention on purpose, mixing historical details with constructs of a character-centric novel. Again, he does this to achieve an objective view of the revolution. The section on Manuel Montes and Jose Maria Sanchez in Chapter 5 is an example, among others. (Henderson 103-113) Regardless, this tends to make the reading a bit laborious to those used to reading from one character’s view.
Second, Henderson wants the reader to view the revolution from the view of an outsider. However, the story may arguably be quite different from the domestic viewpoint of the Indians, agraristas, Ovando, Obregon, Montes, Sanchez or others. While Henderson focuses on shaking up our typical view of revolutions, he also tends to glorify Evans in the process. “This has been like a sacred crusade; I did not mind dying the minute I won out.” (Henderson, 132) Does he laud her role as a potent challenger, a crusader, a literal ‘thorn in the side’ for both the government and the peasants? It does become difficult not to cheer for Evans. As a result, it may blur the reader’s sense of objectivity. After all, who is on the right side?
Despite these minor problems, The Worm in the Wheat is an effective book that transports us into the middle of the fray. Henderson uses an unusual mix of novel and historiography to shake up preconceived notions of the Mexican Revolution. As a result, readers wonder if the chaos and confusion sums up as a clearly defined revolution or just a series of struggles for personal interest and gain. It is a murky sea to navigate. Regardless of Evans’ unusual resilience, even she could not survive the tide.