Every two years, I play “literary critic” by volunteering as a preliminary reader for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Sounds grand, doesn’t it? Actually, the long list takes all comers, which is how I ended up reading the totally execrable 33 Bits a few years back. I may never recover from that experience. Anyway, nothing since has even come close to being as bad as that book, but I keep thinking there must be a better mechanism for slamming the door on delusional writers. Cross my fingers, but I have not encountered another Jane Bash since the 33 Bits debacle.
This year, my nonfiction choice was Another Place and Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plains, by Craig Deutsche. I picked this book because I think local histories can provide wonderful material for literary nonfiction works, but the genre requires someone who not only knows how to write but who also understands that organization and ruthless editing are absolutely essential when dealing with oral histories. Oral histories provide valuable glimpses of the past, but they can be difficult to handle. Sometimes, boring stories are just boring stories, and putting them down on paper does not make them any less boring or repetitive. This book could have benefited from an editing that asked the critical question: Does this anecdote add to, or detract from, the main narrative? Craig Deutsche is a reasonably competent writer with a natural, folksy style that worked well with the stories in the book; unfortunately, in his eagerness to tell us how he got from point A to point B, his voice began to compete with the “voices from the Carrisa Plains.” Somewhere near the middle of the book, he made a too-many-pages detour into a seemingly endless search for the recorder of some oral history tapes he found. It was ultimately a fruitless search, and the person he thought had made the tapes turned out not to be the recorder after all. This section, as well as the “pause for assessment” interlude, seemed a self-indulgent chapter that should not have been included at all. Neither of the chapters added anything substantive to the book.
Another problem with the book is the organization. Craig Deutsche made a point of telling us that his book is not meant to be a straight history. Fair enough. I admit it, the historian in me thinks the book would have been more valuable if it had foot notes or end notes, a better index, a better reference section — in other words, more rigorous documentation. But I can overlook all that, if only he had found a better way to organize the subjects. I understand the difficulties of artificial boundaries: cowboys, shepherds, ranchers — there are overlaps in roles, in places, in time. But it was frustrating to be reading about a particular person or family, only to have the subject be dropped with the note that “so-and-so” will be encountered again at some later chapter. This was particularly glaring when Deutsch embarked on the search for the Van Mastre family, and wrote about the beginning of the journey in the chapter on the search for the oral history tapes recorder. And then, for some inexplicable reason, he dropped the family until the end of the book. Perhaps it was meant to be suspenseful, but it just added to the impression of disorganization and the feeling that perhaps the author should have been less ambitious with the scope of work. The Van Mastre family could indeed have been the subject of a monograph all by themselves, a lens through which to view a particular history of agriculture in California.
I quibble about the scholarship but not the intent: the book is important for shedding light on a little-known piece of California history. The author has made a truly remarkable effort to gather in one place the stories of a people and place, stories that highlight the resilience of pioneers as well as the sometimes ephemeral nature of human settlements. And, perhaps unintended, the book is also a celebration of the life of the land, its resilience and its ability to absorb, and cast off, the efforts of man. Someday I will go to the Carissa Plains; perhaps I will hear the voices, but more likely, I will feel merely my own puny mortality.