Despite the extraordinary physical beauty of its setting, the story that Ira Clark has to tell in this massively detailed history of New Mexico is largely one of communities struggling to overcome the economic poverty of their land and water resources. It's a curiously shut-ended kind of struggle--a process of self-cannibalization really. Since the water supply itself is finite, each success that the state achieves in drawing more residents or another new industry for today only increases the strain, stealing from the generations to follow.
By the end, the reader is left wondering whether someone sometime might have asked if any of this made sense. What rational purpose of state or national policy after all was served by taking irrigation practices that had proved successful in Nebraska and California, for example, and then trying to extend them to a desert?
Few people raised these questions when the state was growing up, and Clark doesn't really pursue them here, though he concedes at the end of his study that the future of New Mexico doesn't involve a choice among viable options so much as a picking over of what he calls "least worst alternatives." His text in the main, however, is non-judgmental, his approach reportorial and his consequent achievement encyclopedic. It is unlikely that anyone will ever attempt to duplicate this assembly of records and events. And so, as the definitive work on its topic, all of the commentators and scholars to come will necessarily have to mark the value of their contributions by the extent to which they deviate from or reinforce the basic line of Clark's narrative.