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Rudy Ruiz’s Valley of Shadows: A Genre-Bending Journey Through the Borderlands

The border looms large in another Rudy Ruiz bestseller. Winner of the Texas Institute of Letters’ Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction, Valley of Shadows is nothing less than a literary masterpiece. Ruiz’s second novel and sixth book, it has received critical acclaim since its release in 2022 and has left readers both mesmerized and terrified by its sinister plot. 

Ex-lawman Solitario Cisneros finds himself living a lonely existence in a town along the US-Mexico border. When the Rio Grande shifts course, it leaves Olvido stranded on the US side of the border. Having lost his wife, his country, and now his job, Cisneros has resorted to communing with ghosts and reminiscing over the past.

But evil is lurking close by. The town of Olvido is struck by a heart-wrenching tragedy. A series of gruesome murders and kidnappings has left everyone looking for answers. With the mix of Anglo, Mexican, and Apache settlers on the brink of violence, the townsfolk have turned to Cisneros for help. He must dust off his uniform and muster up the courage to find the perpetrators of this terrible crime before someone innocent must bear the white man’s wrath. 

Cisneros sets off on his perilous journey, joined by the gifted and beautiful Apache seer, Onawa. A true companion, Onawa pursues her changing destiny while introducing the Mexican lawman to his own. Little does she know that he is not only fighting external forces of evil but also his own inner demons. 

A neo-Western blend of magical realism, mystery, and horror, Ruiz’s latest novel highlights themes of injustice, isolation, and suffering that grew unchecked across the border in the late 1800s. His depiction of the main protagonist, Solitario Cisneros, portrays him as heroic and inspiring but at the same time human, vulnerable, and flawed. Ruiz reveals his brilliance as a writer when he makes the border come alive through his storytelling. His setting isn’t just a time or a location, it’s a living, breathing, and constantly evolving phenomenon. 

Written during a time when the entire world faced a never-ending lockdown, Ruiz brings alive themes of loneliness and loss through his main characters. “Now that the book’s been out a few months and I’ve had the chance to meet readers and go to bookstores and book festivals, I’ve had some readers come and speak to me about how the story touched them deeply, perhaps because they were going through a personal loss of their own. They were grieving or mourning a loved one, and they connected with the grief and the sorrow that the protagonist in Valley of Shadows is going through after having lost his wife and his country.”

Ruiz recalls finding inspiration for his new novel in an innocent request from his son, who asked, “Hey, Dad, why don’t you write a Western horror story?” Having never written a novel in either of those genres, the author began mulling over the possibility. Finally, a trip to West Texas presented an “aha” moment. “At my son’s request, my wife and I took him on a trip out to the desert in West Texas, and we were out in places like Big Bend National Park and Marfa. The setting inspired me. And I thought this is it! This is where I have to set the story,” he said. 

The US-Mexico border has played an important part in Ruiz’s life and finds its way into many of his literary works. The author grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, in Brownsville, Texas, and spent most of his childhood commuting across the border, visiting family in Matamoros, Mexico. The son and grandson of Mexican immigrants, Ruiz inherited family heirlooms disguised as stories, tales that inspired the young boy to become an avid reader and later aspire to become a writer. 

“One of my grandmothers, my maternal grandmother, and my father were both these great storytellers. They were natural storytellers that would share these amazing tales about their youth, our family, past generations, life along the border, and life in Mexico. They even shared stories of ancestors and where they came from, say Europe to Mexico, and the hard times they went through during eras like the Mexican Revolution, and the crazy things that happened along the border over the years. At some point, I realized I’ve got to write. I felt inspired by their memories to fictionalize and world-build the mythical borderlands of La Frontera and Olvido, where the characters face historic and personal challenges very much symbolic of the enduring social and human issues we still face today in the United States and along the border with Mexico.”

And write he did. The award-winning author received four International Latino Book awards for his debut novel, Seven for the Revolution, which explores the lives of Latino immigrants through seven unique stories. His most popular fiction novel, The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez, was published in 2020 and was honored by the American Library Association’s Booklist as one of the Top 10 best debut novels of 2020, and by the 2021 International Latino Book Awards as the best Latino-focused fiction novel. Set in the 1950s and 1980s, the novel follows the life of Fulgencio, who battles a mystical family curse as he strives to succeed in America and salvage his long-lost love. Drawing influences from the life of his father, the novel is a true example of magical realism at its finest. 

Ruiz pays homage to several Latin American greats for his style of writing, which is rooted in magical realism and is regarded as ‘socially engaged fiction’. “When I was in college, I was introduced to, magical realism and the literature of Latin America. Spanish-language writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Laura Esquivel, along with American writers like William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin have been important influences not just in how I write, but also in how I strive to think, see and hopefully impact the world.” 

The author often uses the subtle charm of literature to highlight the disparities that exist within marginalized communities in America and hopes that authentic narratives will foster an atmosphere of understanding between diverse communities as well as the two neighboring countries which he has called home. “I want to help readers see new perspectives on some of these issues and communities – , such as Latino immigrants, the border, refugees – and help humanize those issues for them. Often news coverage of these topics is very politicized and negative,” he says. “I want to build bridges, not walls. Look at people with hope instead of fear. If my work can inspire readers to feel greater empathy for others, then I’ve accomplished my goal both as a writer and as a human being.”

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