Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Far Bright Star

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Far Bright Star

by Robert Olmstead

Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead
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  • First Published:
    May 2009, 207 pages
    May 2010, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Pancho Villa
In Far Bright Star, Cavalryman Napoleon Childs is a member of an expedition sent to the Mexican border to apprehend bandit Pancho Villa.

Many details of Villa's life are unknown or in dispute. Scholars believe he was born José Doroteo Arango Arambula in 1877 (some sources indicate 1878 or 1879) in San Juan del Rio, Durango, Mexico. He was the son of an impoverished sharecropper who died when Villa was fifteen. Legend has it that at the age of sixteen Villa returned from a day in the fields to find the wealthy hacienda owner attempting to rape his twelve-year-old sister. Villa shot the man and fled to the hills where he banded with other outlaws during the years that followed, eventually becoming their leader.

By the time he was 20, he'd moved northward to Chihuahua, where he worked on and off as a miner. His real occupations, however, seemed to have been robbery and cattle theft. His reputation grew over the next decade. He preyed only on the rich and sometimes distributed the proceeds to the poor, thus becoming something of a hero to the poverty-stricken community.

The 1910 Mexican election was rigged in favor of the current president and dictator, Porfirio Diaz. His contender, Francisco Madero, called for others to join him in revolt. Villa eagerly joined Madero, helping him defeat Diaz in 1911, after which Villa returned to northern Mexico.

Early in 1913, one of Madero's former allies, Victoriano Huerta, conspired with Felix Diaz (Porfirio Diaz's nephew), Bernardo Reyes, and US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson against Madero. Madero was kidnapped and killed, and Huerta claimed the presidency, establishing a harsh military dictatorship. Villa joined with former Madero ally Venustiano Carranza in an attempt to overthrow Huerta, and recruited thousands to the cause. His group, which became famous as the Division del Norte, was very successful, winning many battles against Huerta's forces. It was during these years that the charismatic Villa came to the attention of US movie makers and journalists. They flocked to Mexico to record his exploits (many of which were staged for their benefit). His romanticized image as a modern-day Robin Hood and brave revolutionary made him a popular figure in the United States.

Together with Carranza, Villa won a decisive battle against Huerta in 1914, who left the country leaving no one in charge. Villa split with the more moderate Carranza and near civil-war conditions developed, with Villa's supporters in the north and Carranza's in the south.

The U.S. government backed Carranza, who then claimed the presidency. Villa retaliated with cross-border raids, including the attack on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916, in which eighteen U.S. citizens where killed. Although his image in the U.S. plummeted as a result, he became even more popular with the Mexican citizenry. They saw him as an avenger against decades of "yanqui" oppression and interference.

Against the wishes of Carranza, in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson sent General John Pershing after Villa; but after a year of searching, the army had failed to find him. The incursion was embittering relations between the U.S. and Mexico, so Wilson recalled the army in 1917.

Carranza was assassinated in 1920, and the provisional government thought it best to negotiate a peace with Villa. He was offered a large hacienda and retirement at a general's salary, along with amnesty for him and his men.  He accepted. Three years later he was assassinated; most scholars believe he was killed to prevent him from interfering with the upcoming Mexican elections.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in July 2009, and has been updated for the May 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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