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John Nichols, author of ‘The Milagro Beanfield War’ with a social justice streak, dies at 83

SANTA FE — Writer John Nichols, best known for his populist novel, “The Milagro Beanfield War,” has died. He was 83.

Mr. Nichols died Monday at home in Taos, N.M., amid declining health linked to a long-term heart condition, said daughter Tania Harris of Albuquerque.

Mr. Nichols won early recognition with the 1965 publication of his offbeat love story “The Sterile Cuckoo,” later made into a movie starring Liza Minnelli. The coming-of-age book and subsequent movie were set amid private Northeastern colleges that were a familiar milieu to Mr. Nichols, who attended boarding school in Connecticut and private college in upstate New York.

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He moved in 1969 with his first wife from New York City to northern New Mexico, where he found inspiration for a trilogy of novels anchored in the success of “The Milagro Beanfield War."

That novel — about a fictional Hispanic agricultural community in the mountains of northern New Mexico, a scheme by business interests to usurp the town's land and water supply, and the spontaneous rebellion that ensues — won widespread recognition for its mix of humor, sense of place and themes of social justice. It was turned into a movie directed by Robert Redford, starring Rubén Blades and Christopher Walken, with scores of local residents on camera in Truchas, New Mexico, as extras.

“My sense it that he wrote that as a valentine to northern New Mexico. ... He really became embedded in Taos and Chama and all the towns in northern New Mexico,” said Stephen Hull, director of the University of New Mexico Press, which last year published Mr. Nichols’ memoir under the self-deprecating title, “I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer.”

“He wrote it as a gringo — an ‘Anglo’ — but he wrote it with real life experience and it seems to me with a great deal of authenticity,” Hull said.

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In his memoir, Mr. Nichols says he drew in writing “The Milagro Beanfield War” on his involvement with local alternative media outlets and a successful advocacy campaign to ward off construction of a conservation-district dam near Taos, including his notes from uproarious public meetings.

“New Mexico’s sense of humor, its history and cultures, as well as its poverty and inequalities affected each sentence I crafted,” he wrote. “The novel’s attitude and style had been with me since childhood.”

Gerald Ortiz y Pino met Mr. Nichols in the 1970s while working as a community organizer out of a welfare office in Taos and said the author wrote with humor and sympathy about turbulent times, amid a local movement to reclaim land tracts ceded to the U.S. government in the Mexican American War and tensions over the arrival of communes and “hippies” in Taos.

“He wrote three novels about Taos in those days, and in all of them was a sense of the absurdity of what was going on," said Ortiz y Pino, now a state senator. “He captured a point in time.”

Friends and colleagues trace Mr. Nichols’ social justice streak — as a self-described “liberation ecologist” — to his travels in Latin America and Guatemala, starting in the 1960s amid U.S. interventions in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.

Mr. Nichols would later collaborate as a uncredited screenwriter with film director Costa-Gavras on “Missing” about the search for a missing American writer in Chile in the aftermath of the September 1973 coup against leftist President Salvador Allende.

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Mr. Nichols’ published works include at least 13 novels along with nonfiction ranging from collected essays, original photography, nature writing, a chronicle of his parents’ early life and more.

He lived alone after three marriages in a Taos home lined with books, papers and manuscripts, amid an enduring work routine that involved writing through the night, according to friends and relatives.

Mr. Nichols leaves a son Luke Nichols and daughter Tania from his first marriage to Ruth Wetherell Harding, and three granddaughters.