Monday, October 17, 2016

Manzanar National Historic Site

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

Although I am proud to be an American, I am ashamed of a number of events in our past, where we acted, not from our best selves, but from fear and prejudice. Manzanar National Historic Site commemorates one of those shameful decisions.

For those unfamiliar with the history, during World War II, the United States Government rounded up about 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent - including many who had been here for generations - and placed them in concentration camps. They lost their property, businesses, connections, and much more. While these camps were not German-style extermination devices, they were nothing less than prisons where men, women, and children were incarcerated for who they were. Without due process. Without a trial. Without even an accusation that they had done anything wrong. Just because they or their ancestors came from Japan at some time in the past. Fully two thirds of those interned were born in the United States and were either second, third, or later generations of Americans.

There were ten camps throughout the United States, two of which were located here in California.

In summer of 2015, the kids and I visited Manzanar National Historic Site, one of the camps in California. It is located in the Owens Valley, in the desert on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The location is striking, with Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states just to the southwest. The mountains rise 10,000 feet above the valley and provide a dramatic backdrop. But it is hot and windy in the summer, cold and windy in the winter, and let’s not sugarcoat this: this was a prison where children were incarcerated.

Manzanar is a shell of what it once was, of course. At its peak, it held over 10,000 people in wood-and-tar-paper barracks organized in identical square blocks with mess hall, bathrooms, and laundry facilities. Most of the barracks were dismantled and the materials sold off after the war. Only a few are left - mostly reconstructed rather than original. One mess hall remains, and some of the administration building, which houses the museum. You can drive around the site, though, and explore what is left of the gardens that the inmates constructed, and see some of the foundations. There is also a memorial at the site of the graveyard, of which little remains. The families of the dead generally relocated the remains of their loved ones after the war. Who would want to be buried at the prison where one died? A guard tower and the entrance guard stations also remain, built of stone rather than wood. You can see the site pretty well from Highway 395, and we had driven by on the way to various destinations on the east side of the Sierra.

The museum is excellent. I was also thoroughly impressed by the Junior Ranger program here. It is not at all easy, and requires a lot of legwork to find answers within the museum and on the grounds. The amount of information that the kids discovered and learned was better than many history courses.

My eldest daughter (age 12 at the time) was deeply moved by what she learned - and by the video interviews of the survivors. My second daughter was inspired to read Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, a memoir of time spent imprisoned in this camp. There is such horror and sadness in being told to leave everything you know with only those few possessions you can carry with little notice, and travel to goodness knows where, to be imprisoned. And it affected my kids. (And me, of course, even though I was more familiar with the story before we visited.)

At the time we made our visit, we could not have know that the nominee of one of the two major parties for the office of the President of the United States would speak favorably of the internment camps and use them as justification for harassment and exclusion - violation of the constitutional rights of - another minority group. Worse yet, polls of those supporting this man indicate a majority believe the internment camps were appropriate. That is the most scary part about this: that one of the shameful episodes in our history is just shrugged at by so many.

Hindsight, of course, has shown several things. First, it turns out that there was really no evidence that Japanese Americans were a threat. It was - like it always is - hysteria, prejudice, and a desire to harm “the enemy” however one can. Japanese Americans - like Muslim Americans today - were part of their communities. They ran businesses, held jobs, sent their children to school, laughed, loved, lived in peace with their neighbors. Today, there are around 3.3 million Muslims living in America. And like the Japanese Americans 75 years ago, the vast majority are no threat whatsoever. Believe it or not, Muslims are the second most educated religious group in the United States - and that includes women. (Jews are the most educated.) Despite the stereotypes, 90% of Muslims believe women should be allowed to work out outside the home. (That’s a heck of a lot higher percentage than Christians - particularly the fundamentalists I grew up around.) Like the Japanese Americans of 75 years ago, they are part of our community, deserve better than the hostility and harassment they often receive.

The story of Manzanar and Japanese American internment is a cautionary tale for us. When we give in to fear and hate of the “other,” those not like us, we find that we are capable of great evil. Evil we claim (falsely) that we are not capable of. But we are. We very much are. Even those of us with more progressive views on race. After all, it was Earl Warren and Franklin Roosevelt who supported internment - not their finest moments, to say the least. But this election has brought out the (mostly) dormant forces of xenophobia and racial hatred as a certain major candidate has run on a platform of hate and exclusion, blaming our problems on those other, darker skinned people with different religious views. And yes, that includes suspicion of Catholics. The “Know Nothings” appear to be alive and well again. It’s raw tribalism - and it is driven by fear now just like it was back then.

And like it was in the 1940s, fear leads to bad decisions, and these decisions cause great suffering to innocent people. Men, women, and children.

One more fact both saddens me and gives me hope. The United States took a really, really long time to acknowledge that internment was wrong. One would have thought there might have been an apology within a few years. Not so. In fact, it took more than forty years - when many survivors were already dead. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a law that paid survivors the grand total of $20,000 for each survivor. That’s not much for four years of one’s live, loss of property and businesses, and all that, is it? In 1990, President George Bush would send formal apology letters. (see pictures below)

But, as many survivors have said, the lesson to take from this horrible mistake is that we should purpose that it never happen again. At one time, I might have thought we had learned that lesson. Now, I realize that for a significant portion of the United States population, this lesson has not been learned, and they would be all too eager to repeat it, regardless of the cost to the victims.

As a homeschooling father and as a decent person, I am doing my best to educate my own children about our history, both good and bad. I am also trying to instill in them a sense of empathy, of understanding the experiences of others, and of always placing themselves in the shoes of others before taking action out of fear. In our world today, this is needed as much as ever.

Therefore, I urge my readers: take your kids to Manzanar or another camp and learn about the real life consequences of fear and hate. The future will thank you.


George Takei, who played Sulu on the original Star Trek series, was interned in one of the camps as a child. Here is a portion of an interview he gave about his experience there.

If you can’t make it to Manzanar, the website is a good place to start learning. If you are in the Los Angeles area, the Japanese American Museum also has a permanent exhibit on internment.



Graveyard Memorial

 This exhibit profoundly moved me. Some family, limited to those possessions they could carry, chose to bring a Koto. As a musician, my violin would have come with me too. No question. 
For more about the Koto, see my review of Seven Japanese Tales

Racism was an issue long before WWII. The internment camps were a symptom of a deeper problem. 

Inside and out of the barracks. No privacy, to say the least. 

My eldest daughter in the kitchen of the Mess Hall. Food was pretty gross and not at all culturally appropriate most of the time, but at least the inmates didn't starve. Which is faint praise indeed. 

The remains of one of the gardens. 

Guard Tower

Euphemisms. This is from the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles

Back in the day when the GOP could acknowledge wrongs without blowback.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

July's People by Nadine Gordimer

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

For those who are unfamiliar with my Banned Books Week project, each year I read a banned book during (more or less) Banned Books Week. As I have explained each year, I count only books which have been banned by a government somewhere in the world at some time. “Challenged” books do not count - although they are worth reading too - for purposes of my project. For more on the difference, and my philosophy, please read my post on the project.

There are essentially two broad categories of banned books. The first is a ban of books that violate “moral” standards of the time. Or, to put it succinctly, books that have sex in them. Governments tend to ban these in response to pressure from religion and culture. Since cultural and religious standards change with time and place, these bans tend to change too, and many books once banned are readily available.

The second category is books banned for political reasons. These books threaten the current power structure in a society, and thus are banned by governments for their own protection. The worse the government, the more they fear ideas which threaten their power. Thus, of all the banned books, I believe these are the most important for us to read.

Here are the past Banned Book Week Selections:

Areopagitica by John Milton (2011) (Written in defiance of censorship laws - and thus pre-banned in England)
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (2012) (Banned in the Confederate States)
The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf   (2013) (Banned in the author's native East Germany)
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (2014) (Banned throughout the Arab world)


July’s People was written in 1981, and was banned in South Africa, Ms. Gordimer’s native country. At the time, of course, the law of South Africa was Apartheid, a separation of black and white along strict lines of hierarchy. (With the whites on top, of course, not that anyone doubted that.) It is pretty obvious why this book was banned.

First of all, this is a profoundly uncomfortable book. Gordimer does an impressive job of bringing to light the problem of white fragility and privilege - and I will confess that this book made me profoundly uncomfortable.

Gordimer (a white woman, for what that is worth) imagines a horrible future for South Africa. The blacks have rebelled, and, unlike past rebellions, they have the firepower to carry out a revolution. Neighboring countries have lent them military weapons, including aircraft and missiles. Cuba and Russia sense an opportunity to get involved and add another communist nation to the quiver. The airport is shut down after civilian aircraft carrying whites seeking to flee the country are shot down. There is no escape. Johannesburg is being reduced to rubble by the fighting, and the outcome is very much in doubt. 

In this mix, you have Bam and Maureen and their three kids. They are a middle class white family - white collar, but not really rich exactly. But, like most white families of the era, they have a couple of black servants. A cook and a “house boy.” Bam and Maureen - particularly the latter - are liberal, decent people, who want to see Apartheid gone, and who do their best to treat everyone well. But, of course, as a 21st Century American can see easily, they are still taking advantage of the racist system. They have servants.

When everything goes south, so to speak, they withdraw their life’s savings, and flee the city, hoping eventually to get to safety somewhere. Or at least ride out the hostilities until they can rebuild their lives in whatever is left. They don’t flee to some remaining white enclave, however. They go “home” with July, their servant, to his village. Hence the name, as they go live with “July’s People.”

The problem is, the adjustment to this new life is hard on everyone. In essence, they are all dependent on July’s beneficence to survive, which is a total reversal of the previous hierarchy. Negotiating the new reality gives everyone fits. July is conflicted between his loyalty and his simmering rage at his lower status. Bam has lost the essence of his manhood: that of strong provider and leader. Maureen has prided herself on being progressive, and finds out that her good intentions don’t merit much outside of the racial reality she inherited. And she also finds that she cannot look at her husband the same way once he has lost his “manhood.” Even the kids cannot readily figure out what to do without the ability to purchase what they want, and eat “normal” food.

A few incidents are telling. While Bam essentially shuts down emotionally, and ignores the tension, Maureen attempts several times to engage with July, only to be reduced to shock and unbearable discomfort as July refuses to cater to her illusion that they had been friends before, rather than master and servant. Likewise, nobody will outright discuss the question of who now owns Bam’s “bakkie,” a little jeep-or-truck-like vehicle. This is how they made their escape, staying off roads, and following July’s intimate knowledge of the countryside. Bam and Maureen want to believe that it is still theirs, but it becomes increasingly obvious that July considers it to be his now.

This novella-length book never resolves the tension. At the end, there is essentially a “The Lady or the Tiger” moment, and it is over. Do the white protagonists get rescued? Or do they fall into the hands of the rebels? And in each event, what happens to July?

I fear I have done an inadequate job of describing the issues raised by this book. It is always awkward trying to discuss race in a productive manner, as Maureen finds out to her dismay. And sometimes, the world is so broken that there are no good answers. Most likely, everyone loses in the end in Gordimer’s dystopic view.

The silver lining, though, is this:

The real life future turned out to be much better than this book.

While I am certainly no expert in the history of South Africa, the end of apartheid happened during my lifetime - during my formative years, so to speak. When I was a kid, I knew about segregation in significant part because it was still very much real and enforced by law in another part of the world. (The issue if de facto segregation in the United States wasn’t really on my radar at the time.) The end of apartheid was a really big deal, and I remember it well. I remember being excited at the prospect, and - I’ll be honest here - a bit puzzled at the hostility of many I knew toward Nelson Mandela. It really hasn’t been until the events of the last couple of years that I have realized just how deeply racism and white supremacy is embedded in our culture, and how explicitly racist many, many friends and family really are. (Thank you very much, Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named. And thank you Ferguson for bringing this to light as well.) That’s perhaps a future post or two. 

 This one hits a bit too close to home. I've heard too much that is similar to this lately.

Back to the positive part. It would not have been a surprise in 1981 if Gordimer’s vision had come to pass. Ultimately, the state of affairs was unsustainable, and it was taking ever increasing levels of repression and violence to preserve the status quo.

Fortunately for everyone, productive progress was made. While some credit is certainly due to white liberals like F.W. De Klerk, who took action to end the legal apartheid system, we must absolutely never forget that the African National Congress, which took control of the government after the first free elections in 1994 (!!!), showed absolutely amazing restraint and grace. After decades - nay centuries - of oppression, murder, and hatred, it would have been fully expected (and very much in line with the history of European nations in the preceding centuries) if there had been mass purges, and an extermination or expulsion of all whites. It would not have been exactly unjustified. Queen Elizabeth I herself did no less to her political enemies.

But the ANC did what had to be the hardest possible thing to do, which was to forgive and move on. And we should never forget that Mandela eschewed revenge in what has to be one of the most striking instances of “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.” (To quote Churchill.)

Now, I am not saying South African society is perfect. I suspect that, like our own, there is plenty of remaining racism and privilege. But it is unquestionably better than it was in 1981. And the transition to legal equality (or close) was handled in a peaceful manner which is admirable.

So, in the end, things were not as bad as had been envisioned. While Gordimer’s book was banned, the ideas that it contained were spoken and spread by many others, black and white, and influenced the history that was to follow. What actually happened is both cause for optimism, and also a cautionary tale.

It is positive in that it is possible to move toward justice without a total destruction of society. It is rare, but it does happen.

It is a cautionary tale in another sense. Injustice cannot last indefinitely. Right now, in our nation, we are seeing a buildup of pressure and discomfort over injustice. As always happens, there is a natural reactionary tendency that arises in the ranks of the privileged to oppose it. Sometimes, as in the American Civil War, the tension is released through terrible bloodshed. In other cases, such as the Civil Rights Movement (which resulted in a number of important laws in the 1960s), there is unrest, some isolated violence, and social change. We are now on the cusp of another Civil Rights era, and we have our reactionaries. (Le Toupee’s entire campaign is based on racial reaction to a black president, Hispanic immigration, and islamophobia. That IS the campaign.) The warning from history should be apparent to the reactionaries. In a best case scenario, justice will flow. Impede that justice enough, and it will be purchased at the cost of many lives. The choice is yours. It is ours. Do we work to end the injustice? Or do we resist at the cost of far too much.


A personal story:

I grew up in Los Angeles. Specifically, in the eastern San Fernando Valley. For those who know the area and care, I was born in Van Nuys, and lived in the Arleta area from age 9 to age 16.

In 1991, an African American man named Rodney King was beaten on videotape by members of the LAPD.

This incident took place 4 miles from our house.

I remember seeing the video, and knowing, somewhere in my 14 year old soul, that this was wrong. Deeply wrong, and that there was a problem that I didn’t quite understand. It didn’t help that one of the officers referred to King and his buddies as “gorillas in the mist.”

Of course, in the aftermath, I heard a bunch of perspectives from white people. I had (and have) relatives who work with LAPD and other law enforcement agencies. And I would say that on balance, they are the good cops. But the wagons were definitely circled.

One reason that the beating went viral was that the person who filmed it initially notified the LAPD, and they blew him off. He then went to a local TV station, and it seriously blew up. I suspect that 25 years ago, nobody really anticipated the change that would occur with video cameras on everyone’s cell phones. But change was indeed coming.

The officers involved in the beating were eventually charged criminally. The aftermath of that trial would eventually lead to much of what we face with Black Lives Matter today. (I’ll try to explain at least a bit of that.)

The trial was moved from the area in which the incident occurred (the San Fernando Valley) to Simi Valley, west of the area. This was justified by the supposed notoriety of the incident in LA. But in retrospect, as an attorney, it is pretty damn obvious why the trail was moved. The eastern Valley, where I lived, was dominated by people of color. (We were one of only a few white families left on our block when we moved away.) Simi Valley, in contrast, was and is one of the premier areas for white law enforcement officers to live, while working in LA. And it was and is heavily white and middle-to-upper-middle class. (Venue will be important later in this discussion.)

To the surprise of pretty much nobody white in Los Angeles, the officers were acquitted. This is not to say that there were no whites that were surprised. Famously, then president George Bush "Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids." But they weren’t from LA. I think we all knew that this would be viewed as cops threatened by the scary black people who were then justified to use any and all force.

And then Los Angeles rioted.

It is difficult to overstate the effect that the riots had on people. We heard the gunshots from our house, and my parents sat up with our firearms just in case we were the next to be looted or killed. It was a frightening time.

After the riots stopped, my dad was physically threatened by a (probably mentally ill) black man while getting gas near our home. By the end of the year, we had left LA for good. As did many, many others. I can count several dozen who headed to Oregon, or Idaho, or other states dominated by white people.

I can see a number of things that resulted from the riots. Most positively, the Rodney King incident and the Rampart Scandal led to reforms in the LAPD. Again, things are far from perfect, but I believe that some positive changes resulted to law enforcement in many places, not just LA, as a result.

Less positively, the Riots marked what I see in retrospect as a hardening of hearts against blacks on the part of many whites who were otherwise inclined to be progressive. Certainly I saw it in my own family. And, I’ll be honest, in my own heart. We saw ourselves in Reginald Denny, and this would make it, forever after, more difficult to see ourselves as Tamir Rice.

To this day, I am convinced in my heart, the resistance of many otherwise decent middle class whites - particularly of a certain generation - to Black Lives Matter, is a visceral reaction to the Riots. Whatever sympathy toward Rodney King arose in our hearts was extinguished by the riots.

This all happened 25 years ago, and I will admit that it wasn’t until perhaps the last 5 of those years that I myself have actually been open to change my mind. Such is the aftermath of those days. And such are the poisonous results of fear.

And the results linger to the extent that I have had to walk out of some conversations with friends and relatives, because to them, there is no possible answer other than that every single black person who is beaten or killed thoroughly deserved it. I hate to be blunt about this, but it is the truth. I have been told straight up by otherwise decent people that Black Lives Matter is a media creation, and that there is zero problem with our policing of people of color.

But the Rodney King incident had other effects. I feel awkward speaking of what I have not experienced, but let me at least give an educated estimate. I would say that the acquittal of the officers ruined whatever faith most African Americans had in the justice system, and in policing. It is pretty hard to think of a more convincing proof that black lives do not in fact matter in our system. A beating filmed in its entirety did not result in a conviction. (And no, the later civil rights trial of the officers didn’t erase the stink of the first trial.) And, as more and more videos come out, and there are still practically zero convictions, it just gets worse.

I also think the Rodney King incident and the Riots had a profound effect on law enforcement in other ways. One that I see is that there is a tendency to go to the gun first, rather than the taser or baton. Two factors contribute, in my view. One is an increased fear of blacks. The second is that after the verdicts, it is clear that there will pretty much never be consequences. In the vast number of cases, cops know that a dead body will never be their fault. And they aren’t wrong. Tamir Rice proves it. If gunning down a 12 year old with a toy gun within a split second of arriving at the scene doesn’t result in charges, what will?

So yes, I think this event, which took place within a few short miles of my home, had profound and largely negative effects on the next 25 years. And more. It saddens me that police brutality and criminal justice reform have largely (although not exclusively) taken on partisan overtones. One can pretty much predict a person’s view of the Tamir Rice killing based on the (R) or (D) after their voter registration. One can do the same with Black Lives Matter. And if you are talking about a white person over age 50, well, you can pretty much put it in the bank. I can count on one hand the number of white people over age 50 I know who support Black Lives Matter. And several dozen who are openly hostile. Once, an (R) meant a George H.W. Bush. Now it means, well, I don’t even need to tell you.

This breaks my heart. We can do better than this.

In telling this story, I know I am just another privileged white male, and that my own fears and insecurities are a bit silly by comparison. I am probably the safest anyone has been in recorded history, and the chances of my suffering harm from a person of color is vanishingly small. (If I am murdered, it will probably be a gun-toting redneck ex-boyfriend of a client…) But it is my story, and I hope it at least gives a picture of a certain perspective. My hope is to at least explain some of the emotional landscape that profoundly affects and dominates our current discussion of race, policing, and politics.

I am trying to do better, I want to do better, as do many of us. Perhaps the best I can do is to encourage people to immerse themselves in the perspectives of those outside our own little white middle-class tribe. 


More of the story:

It got late and I got tired, and I forgot to finish the story.

After the Riots, I believe the theological trajectory of my family changed as well. The Riots weren’t the only factor, of course, but I believe they were one of three. First, we got more into the “philosophy” of homeschooling, which meant Dominionism  and eventually Reconstructionism. (Bill Gothard was in all important respects, a Reconstructionist, even though he didn't use the term.) The second was that my sister hit puberty. In both my wife’s family and mine, the embrace of the Fundamentalist lifestyle coincided with the oldest girl developing breasts. I cannot help but think that there was a great deal of fear surrounding sex, particularly by females, and this was a driving factor.

But the Riots were very much a third impetus.

It was around this time that my parents read Larry Burkett’s fearmongering book The Coming Economic Earthquake. Like many at that time, they bought the baloney that the national debt would cause civilization to collapse. And they bought the outright slander that it was welfare payments to minorities that caused the debt. (In reality, by far the greatest portion of the federal budget is payments to old people. It’s not even close. And it is also the fastest growing portion of the federal budget by a large margin. If we suffer an economic collapse, it won’t be because of Jamal and Juan - it will be because of Leroy and Irma.) In the event of an economic collapse, we and many others believed that the brown skinned people would riot and pillage as soon as the welfare checks stopped, and that we would be targeted.

In the aftermath of the riots, in addition to leaving Los Angeles, we seriously shopped for some acreage somewhere that we could flee to when the inevitable race war erupted. Some place with white people, and where we could grow our own food. We even considered buying 5 years worth of food to weather the storm. We never truly followed through, fortunately. The “Prepper” rabbit hole is not a nice one. In particular, one had to be prepared to kill anyone who sought help, starving or not.

(This was, I suppose, the very thing that Bam and Maureen didn’t have, which is why they ended up with July’s people…)

Along with this, though, we also discovered Bill Gothard. I distinctly remember my parents being impressed with the large numbers of Institute teens, all dressed neatly in navy blue and white. And also that they looked like “middle America.” Meaning, a certain era’s white middle class look. And yes, even in LA, they were overwhelmingly white.

I have become more and more convinced that this was a large part of the appeal. It wasn’t just a desire to recreate the past. It was a desire to return to a time when racial tension didn’t reach beyond the ghetto, when an average white family could ignore the problems. Honestly, ever since the Riots, there has been an undercurrent to this effect. Kind of a dream of finding a place where uncomfortable racial problems never have to be faced, where one can still believe that opportunities are equal, and everyone has the same chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But this was, and always has been a fantasy escape.


Just to be clear: Black Lives Matter. They have not mattered enough to us, and we all too often act as if they don’t, but they should. May it truly be so within my lifetime.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

Earlier this year, we listened to a collection of short stories by Richard Peck. (Past Perfect Present Tense) In his excellent introduction to each section, he explained the history of each story, and in some cases, what happened after he wrote it. Several of the stories inspired entire books. One of those, “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground,” eventually grew into this book. 

The central character is Grandma, a corpulent old lady who lives in a very small town in the middle of nowhere “a long way from Chicago.” The narrator and his little sister go spend seven consecutive summers with her, from 1929 to 1935. In the original story, Grandma pranks a big city reporter who comes to do a “human interest” story on a local grifter with an interesting name who has died. My kids loved the story, so I put the longer novel on the list.

Each year takes a chapter, and recounts one incident in that summer. As the kids grow, so does the narrative. Joe and Mary Alice go from little kids to teens, and the stories change with them. As in the original, the stories are both humorous and shocking. Grandma is a horrible influence in many ways. She feuds with her frenemy Effie Wilcox - but takes action to reverse the foreclosure on Effie’s house. She poaches fish right under the nose of the inebriated sheriff, then shamelessly blackmails him. She is a talented liar who never hesitates to use her skills to accomplish her goals. She lights off cherry bombs and fires her shotgun indoors. As Mary Alice says, “I don’t think grandma’s a very good influence on us.”

And yet, she is compassionate in her own way, caring for the needs of an elderly woman, helping an abused young woman escape her controlling mother, and putting some local hooligans in their place after they start vandalizing the property of elderly town residents.

She just holds to her own peculiar code of ethics, more or less. There is a good bit of Tom Sawyer in her, the eccentricity only heightened by age and widowhood.

“‘Never trust an ugly woman. She's got a grudge against the world,' said Grandma who was no oil painting herself.”

Richard Peck consistently writes with a light touch. I think he tends to let his characters dictate the plot, and just follows them where they go. As Past Perfect Present Tense showed, he has a wide range, from humor to ghost stories, from period settings to animal tales. Throughout it all, his characters tend to be complex, flawed, and interesting. He also doesn’t shy away from real issues. One memorable scene is where the nephew of the local banker recites a rather sexist poem (which I can’t find, but which seems very 19th Century). Peck doesn’t lecture, but gently elicits the reactions of Mary Alice and Grandma. There is a certain amount of grit and realism, but never for its own sake. Ever since my second daughter introduced us to one of his mouse stories, I have appreciated Peck as an author with skill and imagination.

This book isn’t a bad place to start with Peck. It appeals to a range of children, being neither too serious for young readers nor boring to the older ones.


Other Richard Peck books we have listened to:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sequoia National Park

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

One of the best things about living here in Bakersfield, California, is that there are no fewer than seven National Parks within a five hour drive. (Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Channel Islands, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Pinnacles.) If you expand the travel time to nine hours, you can add in four more. (Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, and Lassen.) And that is before you count all of the numerous National Monuments and other NPS sites within that circle.

Narrowing it down, however, there are four that are close enough that we have visited them as a day trip, leaving early in the morning to hike, and driving back the same day. Those would be Yosemite, Pinnacles, Kings Canyon, and the one we visit more often than any other, Sequoia.

The foothills of Sequoia are around two hours drive, and you can get to the big trees in about three. The most commonly visited sites are in a fairly small area, but the park itself is far bigger. Most of it is wilderness, accessible only on foot or horseback.

The big draw is, naturally enough, the sequoia trees, which are the largest trees by volume. These are close relatives of the redwood, which are the world’s tallest trees. Not only are sequoias big, they are tall - reaching about 250 feet. They are also old, with many specimens in the 2000-3000 year range. And by big, I mean big. The stumps of these trees are about the size of an average swimming pool. And they stay thick most of the way up. (Interesting fact: sequoias grow tall first, then wide. So a young sequoia can be 200 feet tall, and not fill out for a few hundred years…) Sequoias are long lived in large part because of their resistance to the things that tend to kill trees. They have no known diseases, are immune to most insects, and have fire-resistant bark. In fact, the usual cause of death for a sequoia is falling over due to their shallow roots.

The sequoias are amazing, no doubt about it. I never tire of standing below and looking up. They occupy only a small portion of the park, however. They thrive in a narrow altitude range on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, require specific conditions as far as water, sunlight, and shelter from the wind. Thus, they are scattered in a band across the mountains. Groves are found in Kings Canyon and Yosemite as well as throughout the national forest land to the south and north. The biggest grove, though, by far, is the Giant Forest in Sequoia.

The attractions of Sequoia National Park are not limited to these trees, however. Green meadows are filled with flowers in the spring and early summer. Higher in altitude, firs and pines grow large and green. Above that is the high country, where trees give way to shrubs and then to bare rocks. There are gorgeous mountain lakes, numerous peaks 12,000 feet and higher - including Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. Hundreds of miles of trails await, and one could disappear for weeks at a time before reappearing on the other side of the mountains.

One lesser known place is Mineral King, a fairly recent addition to the park. Decades ago, the Disney corporation planned to build a ski resort there, but a combination of effort from the Sierra Club and regulatory and logistical challenges (the road in is pretty insane, and would have cost many millions to improve to where it could bear the necessary traffic) put an end to the plans. Instead, there is a simply delightful set of valleys and peaks and other amazing destinations for the hiker and backpacker.

If you are into wildlife, Sequoia is one of the best places in California to see bears. (Don’t be a stupid tourist and chase them with your camera, though.) On our last visit, we also saw grouse, peregrine falcons, and marmots. Ah yes, marmots. Despite the portrayal in Polly Horvath’s book, marmots are plenty smart and fairly cooperative for the photographer. The best way to describe them to people who have never seen them is that they are the offensive linemen of the squirrel family. Easily bigger than the average house cat, they live at high altitudes among the rocks and meadows.

The Giant Forest and the high sierra are best visited (at least with kids) during the warmer months. We have been up there after a late storm, and the snow can be pretty deep. But the winter months are the best to visit the lower elevations. While nights are cold, the days are usually pleasant - typical Central California.

Oh, and there is also a cave you can tour, rivers to wade in, places to camp, and viewpoints that let you see for as many miles as the air quality down in the valley will permit. It’s a magical place.


A Few Recommendations:

  1. If you plan to hike, the Falcon Guide for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is outstanding. Falcon guides vary in usefulness, but this one is a winner.
  2. My mother-in-law gave us the John Muir Laws Sierra Nevada Guide, which is a perfect book for identifying any living thing you find in Sequoia. (And also Kings Canyon and Yosemite and the rest of the Sierra Nevada.) Ours shows signs of hard wear over the years. It has traveled in backpacks, been touched by many sticky fingers, and yet has survived.
  3. If you plan to visit any of the California National Parks, you should probably make reservations well in advance. Particularly on weekends and holidays, things are booked. For camping, reservations open six months before your arrival date. Likewise, if you want to visit the cave, get to a visitor center early in the morning, before tours sell out.


 Sherman Tree - the world's largest tree (2016)

 Big trees from below. This is the Senate group. Too bad our own Senate isn't this dignified. 
Sequoias often grow in groups, because the cones only open after a fire. (2012)

A Cinnamon variant of the Black Bear. I got this picture on the Little Baldy Trail, at around 9000 feet. (2016)

 This is the falls at Ladybug Camp, on the South Fork of the Kaweah River. 
This hike is in the foothills, at about 3000-4000 feet. I took this picture during my youngest kid's first camping trip. (2013)

 Upper Monarch Lake, near Mineral King, at 10,500 feet. I took this on a backpacking trip. (2014)

From the same backpacking trip, this is my brother and me near the top of Sawtooth Pass, 
with the iconic Sawtooth Peak in the background. (2014) 

Marmot near Tokopah Falls. (2016)

Circle Meadow, and some hikers to show the scale of the trees. (2016)

    Snowplant. These parasitic plants feed on fungi which have a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. (2016)