Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The book I would have written

Just about everybody I know suggests that I write a book. Up until now, I’ve dismissed that as flattery.
But recently, I’ve been giving it some serious thought.
In fact, last week I made up my mind to write a book, although I doubt it is the book any of my acquaintances would have expected.
The book is about a whole bunch of desperate people, told through the experiences of one family. This family - we’ll call them the Garcias - were farmers. In fact, generations of their family had lived and worked the same land.
Unless you have an instinctive hatred for poor folks, you will like the Garcias, I think. They are a good, decent hard-working family. They have been swept up in circumstances beyond their control. If they are to survive, they will have to leave.
So the Garcias, like so many of their friends and neighbors, packed up their few meager belongings and headed for a land of promise hundreds of miles away. California.
That far-away land represented a fresh start, a better life. Some of their relatives had made the same journey years before and had encouraged them to join them. California was a land of milk and honey, they all said.
Well, really, what options did they have anyway? It was California or ruin.
The book begins with the beginning of the Garcias’ journey.
It was a tough trek over difficult terrain. The little money they had was soon exhausted and they were forced to make do the best they could. Sometimes, they were helped by other travelers, who were pursuing the same dream.
Sadly, Abuela Garcia dies, broken-hearted, along the way. With no money for a proper burial, the family simply buries her in the desert and moves on.
When the Garcias finally arrive in California, they are completely destitute. What’s more, times have changed. The boom days are over and even relatively prosperous Californians are beginning to feel the effects of a faltering economy.
Years before, these refugees had been welcomed and accepted. In fact, a lot of their culture was adopted into the community. There was a spirit of mutual respect and appreciation. The residents appreciated their willingness to do all the jobs nobody else wanted to do, for pay that no one else would stand for. The immigrants simply appreciated the opportunity to build a better life.
Now? The visitors are treated with suspicion, even hatred. “We have our own people to take care of,’’ the thinking went. “These people are just a drain on our resources.’’
So, they were told to go back where they belonged, even though a return trip would sentence them to a hopeless future. Going home was not an option, so they hid as best they could, sneaking out only to look for work.
Before long, politicians and law enforcement, sensitive to the fear and prejudices of the residents, began to make political hay of the situation. Laws that had been simply ignored for years were suddenly dusted off and implemented with great vigor. Lock 'em up or send 'em home, came the cry.
And the plight of the Garcias grew worse. Residents sneered at them, called them names. Cops rounded them up, beat them down, generally abused them.
And if they dared complain, they were told, “Go back where you came from. You have no right to be here!’’
Soon, employers - fearful of government reprisal and the hostility of the residents - refused to give them any work at all.
Without work, some resorted to stealing, so desperate had their blight become. Others, as is the case with any mass migration, were simply criminals at heart. It didn’t take long for that distinction to be lost to the residents, though. “They’re just a bunch of criminals, little better than animals,’’ was the general opinion.
The book chronicles the demise of the Garcias, and many others like them.
I was pretty excited about writing that book.
And then, I realized something:
This book had already been written. In fact, it was written almost 70 years ago, by John Steinbeck.
It’s called, “The Grapes of Wrath.’’
Oh, there are a few differences between the book I imagined and Steinbeck’s. The family in Steinbeck’s book are the Joads, not the Garcias. And they were from Oklahoma rather than Mexico.
Beyond that, it’s the same story.
With the same implications.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Good column. I'm glad to see you're still writing. And even though you're right about "The Grapes of Wrath," I think you should write the book anyway. The lesson is apparently lost on many of this generation.