Secrets in the Hills

Published in 2006; author Kathleen Ernst; illustrator Jean-Paul Tibbles


While out with Tia Magdalena collecting plants to use for medicine in another town when she sees some letters and symbols scratched in the rocks. She wonders if it's a mark left by a traveler, or a priest (there's a cross), and even entertains the notion that maybe it indicates buried treasure. When she returns home, her sisters are busy in the kitchen. She joins them, noticing that Francisca is trying to contain her annoyance with what she views as constant chores. She'd rather be married to a rich man, like the handsome Ramon Torres she danced with at a party in Santa Fe recently. Josefina wishes she had the means to get Francisca a beautiful gift, like a fancy scarf, to help her get Ramon's attention.

Before she can think of a way to help Francesca's mood, two men come to her house. One, Sr. Zamora, has a badly injured leg, which has become infected. Josefina has been studying medicine under Tia Magdalena's tutelage, and knows enough to at least begin treating him. When she's straightening his belongings, a map falls out. A treasure map...with symbols and landmarks like the ones she saw earlier. When Sr. Zamora begins to recover, and tells Josefina that the treasure map belonged to his father. Apparently, his ancestors made it decades ago. He set out to find the treasure, but doesn't understand everything on the map. He hopes Josefina can help him decipher it. The other man is full of intrigue himself. Mr. Rexfod an American from Missouri who hopes to enter into a business contract with Josefina's father, selling saddles. He knows Josefina's grandparents, and they've sent a letter of recommendation along with him.

Because this is a mystery book, there are other things happening at the same time: Josefina and other children have been hearing ghostly wailing at night, and she's taking on the role of a healer while Tia Magdalena is away. The latter part includes helping a bitter old widow woman who insists on being unhappy. Josefina doesn't enjoy spending time around her, but knows that she has a responsibility to help take care of her. Josefina worries that the ghostly voice is a ill omen, meaning that the people she's caring for will suffer for her lack of knowledge (despite her desire to be a healer, she still has a lot to learn from Tia Magdalena). And then her sister Francisca is coming down with a variety of ailments--headache, stomach pains, listlessness--and insists that Josefina is too young and inexperienced to be a healer.

But Josefina's efforts as a healer are fruitful for others: not only has Sr. Zamora recovered, so has the widow woman. And she's also appreciated the companionship Josefina gave her, and shares some of her late family's heirlooms to her. Among them is half of the map Sr. Zamora has! With the now complete map and some information about prior landmarks washed away by weather, Josefina and Sr. Zamora find the treasure. It's the cross of the church, buried to save it from being stolen, since it's inlaid with gold. While it's not the treasure they imagined, they're very happy to be able to restore it to the church.

The other secrets begin to be revealed as well. Francisca is simply sick with anxiety, because the American Mr. Rexford wants to court her, and while she also likes him, she's worried about the scandal it might cause. When he does ask her father's permission, he's taken aback, but upon hearing that Mr. Rexford wants to stay in the area, he agrees to let them see each other at least a little bit. The wailing turns out to be from a Navajo woman who had been captured and sold as a slave when she was a child, and now tries to hide her roots. Teresita, the Montoyas' servant, is also Navajo born and was captured, and offers the woman comfort.

So, having successfully helped people's physical and emotional woes, Josefina feels more secure in her desire to be a healer. When Tia Magdalena returns, Josefina is eager to learn more about the craft.

Looking Back

Rumors of hidden treasure, gold especially, were common among the Spanish conquistadors during Josefina's time. There was some basis in fact: many native families buried their valuables when forced to flee from invaders. Natives who did not flee risked being sold into slavery as servants for wealthy families, or being killed if things got violent. But not all interactions with non-natives went that way; some businesses traded back and forth with families in the area that would become New Mexico. Despite the rocky start natives had with non-natives, the violence eventually wound down.


This book is dedicated to "Marsha, forever in our hearts." Special thanks are given to Sandra Jaramillo, Felipe Mirabal, and the staff and volunteers of El Rancho de las Golondrinas Living Museum for "their insights and support."

Josefina has a bit of trouble avoiding the spines on a prickly pear cactus when scraping out the inside to use for medicinal purposes. The text describes "tiny, needle-like barbs." Prickly pear cacti don't have closely-packed spines; they're pretty easy to avoid. A barrel cactus would be better, but I don't know if it has the same medicinal properties (probably not).

Josefina and Teresita talk about fevers, implying that if someone doesn't have a fever the illness isn't so serious. I agree that for a lot of cases that makes sense. However, my brothers and I rarely run fevers when we're sick, and so far at least my older daughter is the same way. But the four of us also rarely get sick. (Although I did start this blog on the first sick day I ever took--the first of about half a dozen.)

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