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John Shannon: The Great American Novel I’d Never Heard Of

John Shannon's The Taking of the WatersUntil my friend Michael Harris gave me a copy of this (who has himself written a great American novel, The Chieu Hoi Saloon). Then I realised I had been encouraged to read John Shannon’s Jack Liffey detective novels by Michael and of course Gary Phillips, and I will now, I will. Mike Davis is a character, Ivan Monk pops up in there, they explore L.A. in ways that I love.

But that’s another series…this is a whole different thing. Compare it to Steinbeck or John dos Passos. It reads relatively quick for being so monumental in subject, a history of a century of American struggle over land, work and rights. A history of what was perhaps really at stake in the red-baiting that led to the destruction of so many lives, as well as the tangled relationships between socialism and working people in struggle.

It starts in the Owens Valley and ends there…there could be no better place. I wrote about it in a long ago blog post, it impressed me so profoundly. I was driving up through there with my friends Beverley and Jose, on our way to see Mono Lake. I knew something about the water and how it was stolen by LA (think Chinatown) but nothing prepared me for this landscape.

The Owens Valley

The Owens Valley

I found out that the people who farmed here had organised, had fought back, had dynamited the damn. They filled me respect.

Their saga is the first in John Shannon’s novel, wrapped in a narrative frame of a foreign journalist caught up in the search for redemption and the family histories of a friend of his, a third generation fighter who is no longer quite sure what he is fighting or how. It allows a step back from the intensity of the stories, a perspective Americans rarely get on histories Europeans rarely see. A clever conceit that works well for the most part (my only critique is that occasionally this feels confusing, a little labored, but looking back I’m still not sure what I think about it).

What struck me at first was not wealth at all. To grow up in a Europe of social democracy–whatever one feels about the accommodations the dream has made with privilege–and to arrive here suddenly is to be struck dumb by the experience of an entire subcontinent living, apparently, without a particle of social responsibility: the grandiose and tidy bank only a few meters from a trash-strewn lot inhabited by winos. (11)

The first story is that of Maxi Trumbull, fearless reporter covering Owens Valley and standing with the farmers. Her story is about the land and community, the complicated relationships we have with both. The importance of water to survival. The power of the city to destroy the countryside around it. Also, love. Loneliness. Commitment.

Her son is Slim Trumbull, raised in the valley but moving on to organise plants up in Detroit. His story is that of labour, fighting union machine along with the bosses, fighting across boundaries of race and loving across the boundaries of class — though he is less capable of such things than his mother. It is also the story of the gradual disillusion with communism. Something I see so strongly here in the UK, but confess to knowing no one in the US who had been through this:

…all Europeans defined themselves by when they left groups. After Hungary. After the failure of reform. After Euro-Communism. After Paris ’68. After Prague. After Poland. (270)

I discovered that there was a colour for model trains known as Tucson red. This makes me smile.

Her grandson is Clay Trumbell, and he drags the narrator back to where it all started — Owens Valley.  Fighting gangsters making porn, investigating the death of a woman and the threats against her daughter. The curious silence of everyone still left. This is more noir, and a curious contrast to the first two but one I like I think. What are we fighting these days? There are no grand narratives any more in the US, no driving ideology. Perhaps he could have chosen Monsanto, Nestle, gentrification and mass displacement…is it only time that makes these struggles feel so different to me?

The mob leaves people just as dead.

A fine book, one you should find and read.

[Shannon, John. (1994) The Taking of the Waters. Culver City, CA: John Brown Books.]

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Where LA’s stolen water comes from, the wonder of Owens Valley

The Coso Mountain range to the east of Owens Valley is a line of volcanoes that erupted again and again, spewing out massive flows of black basalt. The whole area was a center of volcanic activity, creating a landscape of wonder framed against the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

To the north is an incredible cinder cone of deep red, gases and minerals forced violently up from the earth’s core through the hole they blasted in its crust. It reminds you that we mindlessly bang around atop a layer of earth floating above a seething bubbling mass of magma and gas. And only 500,000 years ago it swelled from below, shot upwards, rebuilt the landscape. And here I stand simply marveling at it.

There used to be a lake here, and a river. The river ran down the valley, and when a new lava flow sent it coursing across the black basalt, it sought out weaknesses and devoured them, it polished hard surfaces smooth, it carved amazing forms as it fell forty feet down a basalt shelf, and created one of the more amazing things I have ever seen

I tried, and admit I mostly failed, to capture its beauty and the strange fascination of it. Heat radiates from the rocks, flows about them in eddies and swirls as water once did. This place burns your palms with a deep tingling life as you climb into it, it cuts your skin with its razored lines of grace. And from every angle you discover new shadows and curves, a dark unfurling of stone.

There is no water here now, it was stolen, and the land lies arid and dry as you see it, though abounding with life in gorgeous color.

The land itself was stolen from the Paiutes, they irrigated small farms here from a fast running river, and collected obsidian. When first soldiers and then the homesteading act opened up the land to white settlers, small farmers and prospectors moved here, side by side with land speculators.

Frederick Eaton became mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, and appointed his friend William Mulholland as head of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Together they started what are now fondly known as the California Water Wars. Especially to those who have forgotten that they are ongoing.

LA required water to become the sprawling sucking metropolis that it is today, and the two saw that the Owens Valley had water in abundance. Remember Chinatown? Eaton was a close friend of the agent working for the Bureau of Land Reclamation, who was there to build a network of irigation canals to help small farmers. He bought up much of the land (it all ended up belonging to LA), and Eaton got Teddy Roosevelt to cancel the irrigation project. By 1905 the city of LA had enough land to build the aqueduct through tactics that were varied, creative, and often nefarious. As icing on the cake of venality, the initial run of water went to the San Fernando Valley to water the fields of another close friend, and turn worthless real estate into an agricultural gold mine overnight.

By 1913 the aqueduct was built (it now carries 315 million gallons a day to LA). By 1924 the lake was dry. And in the despair of 1924, 40 men united to dynamite the aqueduct

OwensVly1924

6 moths later residents seized the Alabama Gates spillway and released the water back into the lake. But that was the end of even small victories until the 1990s. The uprising failed as US uprisings always seem to do.

In 1972 LADWP built a second aqueduct, draining surface water. The original vegetation died, and even now the alkali meadows continue to expand. There are salt beds where water used to be, and the wind picks up their dust of carcinogenic nickel, cadmium and arsenic to fling it across the valley. The EPA stated that when the wind blows across the lake bed, this valley becomes the single largest source of particulate matter pollution. In the 1990s and again in 2003, local activists, the Sierra Club and Inyo County won an agreement that a tiny percentage of the water must be diverted back into the valley, but it is tiny…for more on what is being down today take a look at the valiant Owens River Committee.

And read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for the whole story, this is obviously a most horrific simplification.

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