John DeSimone’s THE ROAD TO DELANO centers on historical events: namely, the clashes among growers, pickers, and organizers from the United Farm Workers during strikes in the vineyards near Delano, California, in 1968. As the novel suggests, the strikes, and the abominable treatment of farm laborers that led up to them, pitted neighbor against neighbor, pro-reform growers against their hardline competitors, pickers and union members against “scabs” brought in from Mexico, supporters of workers’ rights against the police, and violence-using protesters against protesters, inspired instead by Cesar Chavez’s ethos of nonviolence. Through vivid characterization, the novel illuminates the experiences and motivations of the strikers, their allies, and their opponents. At the same time, however, DeSimone deftly avoids the mistake of sacrificing narrative interest for the sake of historical detail.
The author is well-served by structuring the novel as a coming-of-age story, using his teenage protagonist, in part, as a proxy for readers who lack prior knowledge of the historical context surrounding the vineyard strikes. Readers also mirror Jack Duncan as he peels back layer upon layer of complication—and obfuscation—in his search for the truth about how his pro-reform father died; about his mother’s struggles with the powerful grower who stole most of her land, and who now seeks to steal the rest in order to take over her water rights; about the complicity among growers, bankers, and a faction within the local police force; and about the appalling circumstances in which the pickers are forced to live and work—circumstances that Jack’s best friend forgoes a baseball scholarship, and also risks his life, in attempts to ameliorate. It is because of these same degrading circumstances, and the violent protests they triggered, that the historical Chavez went on a hunger strike in 1968, as Jack learns during his conversation with Chavez’s fictional counterpart at a critical point in the novel.
The novel as a whole is well-paced, and what emerges as a murder mystery involving Jack’s father helps drive the action forward. Countering that narrative momentum, however, are overlong scenes centering on card games in which Jack proves he has inherited his father’s gambling skills, as well as overly dilated accounts of Jack’s experiences on the mound as the pitcher for his high school’s baseball team. Further, the plot-twist that enables Jack to avoid being shot to death at the end of the novel strains credulity. Overall, however, this engaging novel demonstrates the power of historical fiction to re-evaluate the meaning of past events, by placing them in imagined contexts that help clarify their importance for the present.
Through the experiences of its invented teenage protagonist, THE ROAD TO DELANO, John DeSimone’s page-turning historical novel, effectively evokes the milieu of Cesar Chavez’s nonviolent protests on behalf of exploited farm workers in California during the late 1960s.
~David Herman for IndieReader