- The Last Shepherd by Martin Etchart
After his highly successful coming-of-age debut novel The Good Oak (2004), Martin Etchart revisits Basque culture and its legacy in the US West in this remarkable sequel to Mathieu Etcheberri’s initiation into his family heritage. This time, however, Etchart’s young protagonist will have to abandon Arizona to search for his identity in a small Basque village in the French Pyrenees. It is not just a journey to manhood but also a search [End Page 475] for one’s roots where the second-generation Basque American protagonist discovers the secrets of his family and the land of his forebears.
Etchart’s novel should be regarded as a major contribution to contemporary western US literature and recent Basque American writing. Although the book is worth reading on its own, it is also interesting to interrelate this story to its prequel and to other books focused on journeys of Basque immigrants and their descendants to the Basque Country. In fact, the reader may trace a series of illuminating connections between The Last Shepherd and some of Robert Laxalt’s best-known books, such as Sweet Promised Land (1957), In a Hundred Graves (1972), The Land of My Fathers (2000), and particularly, Child of the Holy Ghost (1992), another novel focused on the disclosure of hidden secrets in the Basque land. In its engaging approach to Basque culture and its powerful symbolism, Etchart’s book also resembles Monique Urza’s The Deep Blue Memory (1953) and Vince Juaristi’s Back to Bizkaia (2011).
The novel explores the tensions between what Werner Sollors called consent and descent relations, emphasizing the interaction between two different worlds, the US one and the traditional lifestyle of the Basques. Etchart evokes especially those characteristic traits of the Basques that seem more peculiar to his young Basque American protagonist. In particular, the novel underscores a series of legends, mythological characters, and traditions that illustrate ancestral Basque identity. Etchart also focuses his attention on the intimate connection between family history and the land, symbolized by Basque surnames referring to places or houses and suggesting heritage, rootedness, and belonging.
In his commitment to a vivid and authentic portrait of Basques, Etchart does not hesitate to include an important number of Basque terms and expressions throughout his novel. In fact, he incorporates Basque terms even in those sections of the book set in the US West (almost half of the novel). The presence of these words and expressions illustrates Etchart’s concern with authenticity in his approach to the land of his ancestors and to the legacy of Basque culture. The spelling of a few Basque terms and Spanish words may be arguable, and there is also an incident on a bus where soldiers instead of border guards check the travellers’ passports, which seems improbable. However, The Last Shepherd should be considered an insightful and convincing account of an individual and ethnic journey through which Etchart demonstrates his gift to capture the essence of time and place in two different worlds, the US West and the Basque Country. [End Page 476]