The novel is set in the plains of New Mexico in the 1940s, during World War II. The first part of the book takes place around Tony’s home, a small house in Guadalupe, and the second part takes place in the town itself, where Tony learns to cope with the harsh realities of life. Guadalupe is a typical rural New Mexico town, embedded in Hispanic culture, its residents part Spanish and part Native American. Anaya uses the rich sense of history these people embrace to carry his themes. Anaya ties the clash between religious and social ideologies and the deep sense of spiritualism Native Americans embrace to a profound belief in the sacredness of the land. His vivid descriptions of the landscape carry his theme of earth magic. Ultima knows the secrets of the earth, and through her influence, Tony comes to appreciate them as well. “Her eyes swept the surrounding hills and through them I saw for the first time the wild beauty of our hills and the magic of the green river.” Tony says when he first meets Ultima, “The granules of sand at my feet and the sun and sky above me seemed to dissolve into one strange, complete being.”
Anaya describes the landscape most vividly when seen through Ultima’s or Tony’s eyes and we know that both of them understand the power of nature. Tony struggles with the idea of God and spirit, which in his cultural history, manifests itself in all parts of nature. Anaya uses nature imagery throughout the novel, and this helps create a sense of awe and mysticism about the land. He also uses the rural New Mexican town to combine the discrepancies of two cultures that Tony must learn to reconcile, and he uses the features of the land to highlight its sacredness. The land is barren and arid, which perhaps represents spiritual emptiness, yet Ultima and her belief in earth magic makes the land, and Tony’s spiritualism, come alive.