The discovery of a wonderful new book and writer is always cause for rejoicing. This book I came across by accident. I was looking for another volume in the same section of the library; the title caught my attention, I briefly browsed the blurbs, and I grabbed it. These days I have become pickier in my reading; I am more likely to begin a book and toss it aside if it doesn’t draw me in. For this reason, for every book I read I bring two or three home from the library. I peruse them carefully when I get home, and try to feast on only the best.
This book, as I said, was a revelation. It celebrates California, but not all of California. It focuses on the particular area where the author was born and raised, which is Owen Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, a desert land with extremes of hot and cold, magnificent mountains on either side, and a proclivity for natural disasters such as drought, flooding, and wildfires. Owen Valley used to be verdant and productive, but as Atleework relates, William Mulholland, the hero of Los Angeles, decided that the valley’s abundant water could better serve “the greatest good for the greatest number” by being diverted via pipelines to feed the growing city of Los Angeles. As a result, Los Angeles became the well-watered city of the stars and Owen Valley became a wasteland where only certain peculiar types of people, as well as the Native Americans who were there before anyone else, preferred to live.
Atleework chronicles the horrendous theft of the valley’s water by the greedy Los Angeles municipality and describes how harsh the land became because of the subsequent aridity. However, that is not the main point of the book. To her Owen Valley, and in particular the towns of Swall Meadows and Bishop, is home. To her it is not a barren wasteland but a marvelous landscape with incredible depth and beauty, a place to which she is drawn despite her wanderings for education and work to L.A., San Diego, and Minnesota. She is emotionally attached to the land, and when she writes of it, the narrative takes on the nature of a love story: love of family and home.
She tells the tale of Owen Valley through her own stories and those of her father, mother, sister, and brother. Her father and mother both fell in love with the land before falling in love with each other. They raised their children with the same reverence, taking them on outdoor activities such as hiking, swimming, fishing, dirt biking, and so on. Her mother died young, but Atleework honors her spirit in these pages. Her brother was adopted. Her parents did not know his background at first, but he turned out to be descended from the local Paiute Indians, and as he grew up, he began to spend more and more time on the nearby reservation. He frequently got into trouble and was relegated to juvenile detention centers and to prison. While telling of her brother, Atleework describes the horrific way that the First People in the area were treated, but also how their love of the land caused them to stay where they were despite their abuse by authorities and the desiccation of the landscape.
All of these threads of descriptions of the landscape, the history of the area, the gruesome treatment of Native Americans, the traumas and triumphs her family went through, and the author’s journeys that always led back home are woven together into a complex yet compelling narrative. Atleework is one hell of a writer; her style is poetic but accessible, meandering but focused, and intensely personal but at the same time universal. She is an excellent writer who has written an excellent book. I can only hope that there will be more.