Author Scott Graham’s newest book, “Saguaro Sanction,” explores not only Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona, but also the controversy and dangers of immigrants attempting to cross the harsh landscape of the Sonoran Desert in order to seek asylum in the United States.
The book, published by Torrey House Press, is the eighth book in Graham’s National Park Mystery Series. Graham’s last several books have also been set in national parks in the Four Corners, at Mesa Verde, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, and have addressed social and environmental issues related to the parks.
Graham will kick off his book launch tour with a book signing at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 7, at Maria’s bookshop in his native Durango. Midway through his book launch tour, Graham will also hold a reading and book signing at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 18, at Amy’s Bookcase in Farmington.
“Saguaro Sanction” follows the familiar characters of Chuck Bender, Janelle Ortega and their two daughters. They not only learn about the archaeological features of the area, but are forced to confront complex family relationships and the dangers of the border dispute.
A highlight of “Saguaro Sanction” is the petroglyphs of the ancient Hohokam people, which are found throughout the Sonoran Desert. Graham mixes fact with fiction, setting scenes in actual petroglyph locations such as Baboquivari Peak on the Tohono O'odham reservation and creating fictional sites such as a petroglyph-covered monument containing a hidden message.
Before writing this book, Graham said he spent time in Saguaro National Park to familiarize himself with the area. As helpful as Google maps might be, Graham said there is nothing like visiting and experiencing the area so that he can express details on a more complete level.
Graham said visiting the parks helps him “give folks a real sense of that place in as real a manner as I possible can.” He hopes the descriptions inspire people to visit locations in the books and learn more about the areas.
“Saguaro Sanction” also takes on social issues of the region, digging into the personal side of immigration across the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Two teenage family members of the character Janelle Ortega attempt to cross into the United States through the Sonoran Desert with the intention of seeking asylum. The trip proves deadly, and the characters become embroiled in a murder investigation and a race to save the lives of the survivors.
Graham said that he doesn’t shy away from social and environmental issues in his books because he not only wants to introduce people to the national parks, he wants readers to understand that these are real places facing real issues.
In 2019, the Tucson area saw 20 to 100 asylum-seekers per day, but rates rose to around 400 per day in December 2022, Pima County Communications Director Mark Evans said in a recent interview. Humane Borders’ website reports that 3,790 immigrants have died attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert since November 2021. In fiscal year 2021, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office recovered 226 sets of skeletal remains from the Sonoran Desert, a record number for the department. Immigrant deaths is an escalating problem for the area with few long-term solutions.
Graham became more familiar with immigration issues of southern Arizona several years ago after reading a New York Times article about an immigrant who died attempting to cross the border through the Tohono O'odham reservation. The journalist retraced the man’s journey back to his relatives in Guatemala, highlighting the dangerous conditions immigrants face.
Graham’s interest was further piqued by his son’s work in southern Texas several years ago. He worked as a paralegal at the Texas-Mexico border with children who were seeking asylum. Hearing their stories reinforced for Graham that the struggles immigrants face need to be discussed and made him more aware of the organizations working on both sides of the issue.
When Graham and his wife visited the park before he wrote the book, they saw water stations provided for immigrants by Humane Borders. Similar stations are set up throughout the border states, but they are not universally supported and are frequently vandalized.
Water stations are a point of contention in “Saguaro Sanction” as well. One such station serves as the site of a murder in the book, providing opportunities for the characters to express a variety of views on the practice. Graham said he uses the characters’ different opinions to provide, what he hopes, is a balanced view of the issue.
Research, stories of immigrants and his own visits to the park to experience the brutal conditions and see the efforts of organizations to both help and hinder immigrants’ journeys put real faces to the issue.
“It was absolutely the most personal story I’ve written so far,” Graham said.
One of Graham’s goals in writing this series is to speak to the “real parts of our lives that affect all of us … through the power of story. I think it’s such a wonderful way to learn and a wonderful way to challenge ourselves.”