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Red Sky at Morning

Red Sky at Morning

by Richard Bradford


A novel set in New Mexico during World War II; published in 1968.


A seventeen-year-old boy and his Southern belle mother move to their summer home in New Mexico when his father joins the Navy to serve in World War II.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Although born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 1, 1932, Richard Bradford would later spend much of his life among the majestic terrain of the American Southwest. After graduating from college in 1952, the twenty-year-old Bradford spent three years in the U.S. Marines before finally settling in New Mexico. Over the next two decades, he would find work in a myriad of locales in the area, from the tourist bureau in Santa Fe to the Zia Company in the scientific mecca of Los Alamos. At age thirty-six Bradford saw his first novel, Red Sky at Morning, published and praised for its brilliant dialogue as well as its accurate depiction of Southwest culture.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

New Mexico during World War II

Prior to the 1940s, New Mexico was a remote area whose limited population was centered around the numerous rural communities that dotted its terrain. For decades, the three main constituencies that comprised New Mexico society—Hispanics, American Indians, and Anglos—lived distinct lives culturally independent from one another despite the shared land. With the advent of World War II, however, life as they knew it would be altered irrevocably.

When the United States entered the war in 1941, the entire nation geared up for a battle to defend the concept of democracy, and New Mexico was no different. Whereas before, the people of New Mexico had maintained a certain sense of autonomy, they were now thrust into the national fold. Thousands of New Mexicans enlisted to fight on behalf of their country, while many others migrated westward to find work in the defense and aerospace companies that were mobilizing on the Pacific coast.

The war also attracted the attention of the federal government to New Mexico in the search for a new home for its East Coast-based atomic bomb development program, eventually code-named the Manhattan Project. After combing several Western states for the ideal location, the search committee finally decided on Los Alamos, a sparsely populated town in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. Their choice of this site, attractive because of its remoteness, was encouraged by the project’s director, a brilliant and charismatic theoretical physicist named Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer invited some of the world’s most famous scientists to the site, men such as Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller, thereby establishing Los Alamos as a center of cutting-edge science. It was a distinction that it would continue to hold for decades to come, even after the successful explosion of the world’s first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, near the southern New Mexico city of Alamogordo.

All these factors resulted in New Mexico’s experiencing numerous changes both demographically as well as culturally. Because of the continuous growth of military installations like Los Alamos, and later the Kirtland, Cannon, and Walker air force bases, residents began to find work either on the government payroll or in the expanding towns neighboring such locations. This served to hasten the decline of the small selfsufficient farms that had defined New Mexico’s rural roots for centuries; it also brought about the state’s transition from a land full of rural communities to one marked by urban centers.

Families left behind

It is only after Red Sky at Morning’s Mr. Arnold enlists in the military that his wife and their son Josh are forced to move westward to Sagrado until the conclusion of World War II. Such instances were not unique. With so many able men enlisting for combat, many wives were left at home alone to care for their families. To occupy their time, some sought work in the factories while others, such as Josephine “Jo” Milton of New Mexico, found solace in performing volunteer work for agencies like the USO (United Service Organization), Red Cross, and OPA (Office of Price Administration). But no matter how many activities she would participate in, Jo still felt a sense of longing for her husband. “Life on the home front was lonely, but we survived by keeping busy” (Milton in Thomas et al., p. 87).

Unfortunately, not everyone was able to maintain the same sense of composure demonstrated by Jo. There were women throughout the country who found themselves unable to cope emotionally with the absence of their men. According to a Time article dated January 1945, in San Francisco alone 2,500 servicemen’s wives underwent some form of psychiatric treatment in an eighteen-month span. “Women are paying the same war penalties as men,” the magazine reported, “many of whom crack up long before they reach combat” (Weatherford, p. 265). In addition to the rise in psychiatric disorders, women left behind turned in increasing numbers toward the temporary comfort provided by alcohol, as does Josh’s mother in the novel. Whereas before World War II, 38 percent of women drank alcohol, by 1947 the numbers had escalated to 56 percent. Moreover, alcohol problems went largely unaddressed in the 1940s. Alcoholics usually got no medical or psychological treatment for their drinking. Not until the 1950s and 1960s would alcoholism begin to be regarded as a disease.

Life in a New Mexico village

Except for a brief scene in Mobile, Alabama, much of the activity that takes place in Red Sky at Morning occurs in and around the quaint village of Sagrado, New Mexico. Like many of the towns that existed prior to World War II, Sagrado exemplifies a way of life first introduced by Spanish and Mexican colonists centuries before, one characterized by smallness, simplicity, and self-sufficiency.


In the novel, when Josh visits the home of the Montoyas, he sees there a little wooden building with a cross on the roof. At one time the building was used for religious purposes, not as a church but as a morada, a place of worship for people called Penitentes. The Penitentes were a lay religious order organized to maintain values and customs that might otherwise have disappeared because of the scarcity of religious leaders. While this order once served as the guiding religious force in many Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico, by the latter part of the 1800s conflicts between its leaders and members of the Roman Catholic Church had forced it to fade into secrecy.

At the beginning of the novel, Josh, the seventeen-year-old narrator, describes Sagrado as “nonessential.” “That’s the best way to get through a war,” he says, “Don’t be big and strong, be hard to find” (Bradford, Red Sky at Morning, p. 34). The modest nature of such settlements had its roots dating back to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when Spanish settlers congregated in a single compact community unit called a casa-corral. Later, beginning with the period of Mexican rule and continuing into the years of American occupation, disruptive elements like drought and the possibility of outsider attacks forced many to group together even more closely in order to maximize natural resources as well as protect themselves.

Before World War II, much of the state of New Mexico relied upon local resources for building materials. As a result, the most common form of home was built of adobe bricks and furnished by hand-made articles such as wooden chairs and handwoven blankets. In the novel, the home occupied by the Arnolds consists of six bedrooms—a castle by New Mexican standards, though smaller homes often exercised the option of adding another room. In fact, whenever a village family might require more space, they would simply add another room to the existing structure, complete with its own corner fireplace and outside entrance. Eventually, the design might evolve into a long, low building comprising either a U- or L-shape. Another design was the plazuela, “a single-family version of the fortified village, in which contiguous rooms surrounded and enclosed a small courtyard” (Warren, p. 46).

Another characteristic of the New Mexican village—that of self-sufficiency—relates to the geographical makeup of the region. The villages were isolated among various types of terrains—flat, tall-grassed plains; stretches of sparsely vegetated land; otherwise empty mesas and rocky regions that “seem to belong to another planet” (Warren, p. 53). And between the towns was often a long and arduous stretch that made it necessary for the inhabitants to rely upon themselves for basic goods and services.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to seventeen-year-old Josh Arnold and his family as they are enjoying a last meal in their house in Mobile, Alabama. Come morning, they will be departing for their summer home in Sagrado, New Mexico, where Josh and his mother are to remain while his father leaves to fight in World War II.

Early the next morning, Josh and his family set out for the simple life of Sagrado. Like many real-life individuals, the Arnolds first came to New Mexico for health reasons when Josh was only two, immediately falling in love with its scenery and culture. It is the first time in seven years that Josh is accompanying his parents to their summer home—the largest in Sagrado. He soon discovers that with the exception of “talk of something warlike going on at Los Alamos” (to which his father says “They’re manufacturing the front part of horses up there... and shipping them to Washington for final assembly”), little has changed (Red Sky at Morning, p. 34).

Once the family arrives, they set about putting their affairs in order. While Josh and his father hammer out a contract with Amadeo Montoya, a local native who oversees the upkeep of their property, the mother remains indoors with Excilda, Amadeo’s wife and the Arnolds’ cook, who update each other on family happenings. Three months later Amadeo drives Mr. Arnold to a train bound for Massachusetts, where he is to join the navy.

Soon after Mr. Arnold’s departure, Josh begins his senior year at the local public high school. It here that he meets a strange mixture of friends that serve as his companions throughout the rest of the novel. The first new acquaintance is William Stenopolous Jr., nicknamed Steenie, the son of the only obstetrician in the area and the possessor of a prodigious amount of knowledge regarding human anatomy. Through Steenie, Josh is introduced to Marcia Davidson, a girl of medium size, “slim with black hair and fair skin,” who also happens to be the daughter of the rector at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church (Red Sky at Morning, p. 47). Despite her strict moral upbringing, Marcia is an utter tomboy, speaking frankly about whatever subject happens to cross her mind. Unfortunately not all of his newfound friends turn out to be entirely cordial. After being caught glancing at a girl named Viola Lopez, notorious for her excellent figure, Josh is threatened with bodily harm by her protective brother Chango, who promises “to bahss your ass” (Red Sky at Morning, p. 49).

For the next few months, Josh adapts to his new environment extremely well. In addition to making friends with a local sculptor named Romeo Bonino—a longtime acquaintance of his father’s known more for his companionship with an eclectic and comedic array of female models than for his art—he also journeys around town with Steenie and Marcia, meeting more interesting characters and familiarizing himself with the local culture. His escapades are not entirely without mischief. One day, while walking around the city dump, the trio discover a dead horse “surrounded by a cloud of flies, giving off a visible green mist.” At the sight of this, his two companions decide to introduce Josh to a game they call gallina (“chicken”). According to the rules, “The object of the game is to walk, or run, to the horse, touch it with your hand, and walk, or run, back to the starting point” (Red Sky at Morning, p. 59). When it is Josh’s turn, he meets the challenge with humorous results, tripping and accidentally falling on the horse’s decaying corpse. “[T]he horse’s ribs began a slow caving-in movement. I pushed myself away and my hand went through his skin, surprising me” (Red Sky at Morning, p. 60). The incident leaves Josh a bit pale and weak-kneed.

Unfortunately, Josh’s mother is not able to so easily adjust to her new surroundings. Apart from engaging in weekly bridge matches with a few of the local women, she remains at home, seeking solace in the endless supply of sherry found in the underground cellar. Her unhappiness is further aggravated by the unannounced arrival of Jimbob Buel, a guest at their former home in Alabama, who reminds her of the genteel Southern life she left behind. As the number of months in Sagrado increase, so too does her alcoholic intake, culminating with the firing of the Montoyas one fateful drunken evening.


Year Population
 (Adapted from Etulain, p. 161)

Unable to adequately care for his mother in her present condition, Josh seeks professional help. He contacts Dr. Arthur Temple, Sagrado’s only resident psychiatrist, who after arriving in a Rolls Royce and undertaking a quick examination of Mrs. Arnold, offers the following insightful diagnosis: “Ah. Your mother is drunk. She may or may not have a psychiatric problem, but at the present time she is drunk” (Red Sky at Morning, p. 131). Josh also pays a visit to the Montoyas, and convinces them to return to their jobs at his house on one condition. Josh, not his mother and Jimbob, will act as head of the household in his father’s absence. The Montoyas decide to return, and Amadeo resumes tending the land while Excilda cooks and cleans.

Shortly after the Montoyas’ return, life seems to resume as before. While Josh continues his humorous escapades around town, usually accompanied by Marcia and Steenie, his mother remains at home, drowning her sorrows in bottle after bottle of sherry. Even repeat visits by Dr. Temple are not enough to ease her misery. Eventually, when her condition seems to have reached its lowest point, news of her husband’s death overseas furthers her decline. For Josh, the news regarding his father’s fate arrives in what he refers to as “the telegram, that goddamn telegram that turns up in all the war movies... lying on the coffee table” (Red Sky at Morning, p. 245). It is an emotional time that accelerates Josh’s passage into adulthood.

As the novel draws to a close, Josh is formally initiated into the ranks of adulthood. Not only does he graduate from high school, but in light of his mother’s continued decline he begins to assert himself as the unwavering head of the Arnold household. After negotiating the sale of their home in Alabama and reasserting his authority over the family business, a shipyard in the South, he sets about performing one final task. Following in his father’s footsteps, he enlists in the U.S. Navy for two years, and departs westward along with the rest of the new troops.

The South versus the Southwest

In depicting Southwestern culture, Red Sky at Morning reveals racial antagonism among its various ethnic groups. On the first day of school, Josh, the novel’s narrator, is introduced to the different groups that comprise the New Mexican town. According to his new friend, Steenie Stenopolous, “We only recognize three types of people in Sagrado: Anglos, Indians and Natives. You keep your categories straight and you’ll make out all right” (Red Sky at Morning, p. 44).

While this may sound simple enough, in describing a girl named Viola Lopez, Steenie reveals the complications:

She speaks Spanish and English, and she’s a Catholic. Don’t ever make the mistake of calling her a Mexican. Her brother will kill you. Of course, if you call her a Creole she’ll get confused as hell and think you mean she’s part Negro—that is, part dark-skinned Anglo—and her brother will kill you again. So think of her as a Native, unless you’re comparing her with an Indian. Then she’s ‘white.’ Got it?

(Red Sky at Morning, pp. 44-5)

There is an element of humor in the writing that manages not to undercut the seriousness of the issue. The novel also imports characters from the South—such as Josh’s mother, Mrs. Arnold, and their permanent house guest, Jimbob Buel—which serves by contrast to further define the Southwest. Not only does the background of two dominant racial groups in the South (blacks and whites) magnify the array of the three dominant racial groups in Sagrado (Anglos, Indians, and Latinos), but as one historian notes, the novel contrasts other elements from the South with those found in the Southwest as well:

Mrs. Arnold hates the climate and topography of northern New Mexico; it is too hot and dry in the summer and too cold in the winter—and there is no humidity. She dislikes all Catholics simply because they are not southern Methodists or Calvinists of some stripe. She abhors the spicy foods of her Chicano cook and wonders what has happened to black-eyed peas and fritters. And she misses the warmth and friendliness that her son soon finds in Sagrado because of her initial hostility. Mrs. Arnold arrives with enough chips on her shoulder to build a castle in honor of the South, and this attitude hardly endears her to residents of Sagrado.

(Etulain, p. 60)


Elements from Bradford’s childhood—in particular, the relationship he shared with his own father, Roark—seem to have inspired a number of details in Red Sky at Morning:

  • Both families have origins in the South—the Bradfords hail from Louisiana, the fictional Arnolds from Alabama.
  • Each family spent many summers in New Mexico—the Bradfords in Santa Fe, the Arnolds in the fictional town of Corazon Sagrado.
  • The two fathers share similar fates—Bradford’s father passed away in 1948 from an illness contracted in French West Africa while serving in the navy; the novel’s Mr. Arnold, a navy officer, is killed by an enemy mine in World War II.

At the end of the novel Josh follows in his father’s footsteps by joining the navy. Similarly the author followed his father’s lead, and in more than one way. The elder Bradford, a novelist and short story writer, is perhaps best known for Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun (1928), a collection of biblical stories as told by blacks that was adapted into the Pulitzer-Prize winning play Green Pastures. And Richard Bradford would eventually serve in the military, as his father did, spending three years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

New Mexico from World War II to the 1960s

The Second World War had a dramatic and ongoing effect on life in New Mexico. After the war the developments of the contemporary world began infiltrating the area to a greater degree than ever before. Postwar defense installations and industries appeared in New Mexico, accompanied by a tremendous rise in the state’s population.

There were also other changes that transpired in the state during this era. Many rural New Mexicans left their adobe villages, moving to cities in hopes of finding jobs in industry or in the uranium mines that began operation in the early 1950s. Meanwhile, the U.S. armed forces pressed for more land to use for their own purposes in New Mexico, which resulted in thousands of acres being taken out of both private hands and the public domain for military purposes.

With the vast rise in population and the migration from villages to cities came also societal changes. Ethnic divisions of New Mexico became more pronounced than before, and tensions rose. A number of Hispanic residents organized in the late 1950s and 1960s, forming groups such as Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants—known simply as Alianza). Led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, Alianza argued that millions of acres held by the U.S. Forest Service and Anglo ranchers should be returned to Latino residents. The members of Alianza and other such groups stressed their own racial heritage in contrast to that of other New Mexican residents. This heightened racial consciousness suggests that close friendships between people like the novel’s main character, Josh, and young people of varying ethnic backgrounds would have been less likely to take place at a later time than that of the novel.


Red Sky at Morning was repeatedly complimented for its accuracy in describing certain dialects of the Southwest. As explained by John Knowles, “[Bradford] hears them [his characters] all speaking inside his head and reproduces their dialects and diatribes and wittiness with great fidelity on the page” (Knowles, p. 5).

Finally, the arts became a larger and larger attraction, pulling visitors and migrants to New Mexico in the 1960s. At the time of the novel’s publication, the most famous artist to reside in New Mexico was the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who had often drawn upon its majestic surroundings for her work. In addition, more and more cultural groups were moving into cities such as Santa Fe, such as orchestra, ballet, and theater companies that added to the rich artistic heritage of the state’s Indian and Latino populations.


When Red Sky at Morning was originally published in the fall of 1968, it took the general population by storm, appearing continuously on bestseller lists for several months. It also garnered rave critical reviews, some of which compared it favorably to such past American masterpieces as To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. Among the numerous compliments it received, most can be divided into two basic groups: those that enjoyed its humorous characterizations and those who agreed with its accuracy in depicting life in the Southwest. The former, largely considered the prime reason for its commercial success, impressed several critics greatly. Others, such as author John Knowles, found a deeper meaning in Bradford’s novel, one that confronts the racial tension found in New Mexican society. According to Knowles, “unnoticed, beneath its always diverting surface, are the deeper feelings of the people involved until suddenly, very briefly, they break through, and we find that they are real people, serious people, after all, and that what we are reading is not just very skillful entertainment but a novel of consequence” (New York Times Book Review, January 9, 1968, p. 5).

The character of Sheriff Chamaco is one example of this. He offers the new arrivals some advice: “Jew better buy some big hats, and don’ ron aroun’ too much. A lot of people, they think it’s nice and cool here, they go ronnin’ aroun’ and drop dead from the sun estroke.... An’ don’ forgat about sitting on the grass. Jew been warned. I won’ tell you more than three, four honnered time, and then I’ll clamp down. Hokay?” (Red Sky at Morning, p. 30).

For More Information

Bradford, Richard. Red Sky at Morning. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1968.

Etulain, Richard B., ed. Contemporary New Mexico, 1940-1990. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Knowles, John. Review of Red Sky at Morning. The New York Times Book Review (January 9, 1968): 5.

Thomas, Gerald W., Monroe L. Billington, and Roger D. Walker, eds. Victory in World War II: The New Mexico Story. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Warren, Nancy Hunter. Villages of Hispanic New Mexico. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1987.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women and World War II. New York: Facts on File, 1990.

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