Sunday, December 03, 2017

"Nancy Kelsey Comes Over The Mountain: The True Story Of The First American Woman In California"

The new children's picture book from retired librarian Nancy Leek of Chico is called "Nancy Kelsey Comes Over The Mountain: The True Story Of The First American Woman In California" ($15.95 in paperback from Goldfields Books; It's available on Amazon and locally at Bidwell Mansion, Made In Chico, and ABC Books. Each page features a full-color drawing from Paradise's own Steve Ferchaud.

In a postscript Leek tells the story in greater detail, noting that Kelsey "thought that she was the first American woman in California. In fact, when she got to Sutter's Fort, Mary Walker, the wife of explorer Joel Walker, had already arrived from Oregon. But Nancy was the first woman to come to California by the perilous route over the Sierra Nevada."

Kelsey and her ever restless husband Ben "joined the Bidwell-Bartleson Party for California" in 1841. "It was a hazardous trek," Leek writes in the postscript. "Nancy was pregnant during this six-month-long journey, and gave birth to a boy at Sutter's Fort after arriving there in December 1841. The baby did not survive." She eventually had eleven children (two died in infancy). Kelsey herself died in 1896.

The children's story starts with Kelsey left alone in the mountains while the men of the party scouted ahead. She "sat on her horse, holding her little girl, Martha Ann, on her lap. She was afraid to dismount her horse. Who knew what stranger, what bear or mountain lion, might come on her suddenly?" The story quotes Kelsey's own account: "I was left with my babe alone, and as I sat there on my horse and listened to the sighing and moaning of the winds through the pines, it seemed the loneliest spot in the world."

The story then picks up the start of the journey, the arrival in California, and in 1846 Kelsey's part as the "California Battalion" helped "take California away from the Mexican government." Perhaps she helped sew the original Bear Flag.

It's been almost two centuries since Nancy Kelsey was born. This captivating book keeps alive for a new generation the life of an extraordinary woman.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"Roads Not Taken"

Chicoan Emily Gallo is exploring the lives of a group of unlikely friends who frequent the famous Venice Beach boardwalk in Southern California.

Her first novel, "Venice Beach," introduces writer Finn McGee who comes to stay with his daughter, Kate, and who befriends the mysterious Jedidiah Gibbons, an escapee from the Jonestown massacre; in San Francisco Jed becomes caretaker of the Columbarium (the title of the second book).

"Kate And Ruby" takes up the story of McGee's daughter whose marriage to Martin breaks up when he comes out to her. Ruby, Martin's mother, resents the interracial couple and then "practically disowned Martin for being gay." Unexpectedly, Kate becomes Ruby's caregiver, and life's dailyness changes them both.

The theme of sexual identity is foregrounded in Gallo's newest story, "Roads Not Taken" ($12.95 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle; an audio version is narrated by the author).

Kate had taught a young man named Malcolm Washington in high school. Malcolm now waits tables at Café Gratitude in Venice but everything changes when he applies for a second job at Marie Moss Senior Housing.

Savali, a Samoan, is on staff, and Malcolm is smitten. Though the novel intertwines the stories of the residents, the focus is on Malcolm's coming to terms with Savali's "non-binary" gender identification. Savali is Fa'afafine, a third gender in Samoan society.

Malcolm is straight and prefers to call Savali "she." Savali was born male, telling him that "I realized that I was, in fact, comfortable in my body and my mind in both genders. I also realized that I could wake up on any given day and prefer to dress or behave in one or the other. In other words, I identify as both and I identify as neither."

What does it mean for Malcolm to love Savali, and how does one navigate the "gender spectrum" and the desires that may be incompatible with being a couple? Though not explicit, the story delves deeply and respectfully into what is for Malcolm a new world of sexuality.

Gallo ( is scheduled to be interviewed by Nancy Wiegman on Nancy's Bookshelf, Friday, December 1 on (KCHO 91.7 FM) at 10:00 a.m.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

"California Standoff: Miners, Indians And Farmers At War 1850-1865

"Incomplete accounts," writes historian and retired Political Science professor Michele Shover,  "are a common problem in local history. For example, Butte County's violent clashes between settlers and Indians were treated as random 'one-off' events--intermittent atrocities sprinkled among accounts of Victorian-era 'happy talk.'" John Bidwell himself "suggested the effects of such events were peripheral distractions, not core experiences."

Over the last two decades Shover has worked with original sources in an attempt to tell a more nuanced story, analyzing "underlying causes, political issues, conflicts of interest, cultural assumptions. …" The result is a magisterial work of scholarship that is also immensely readable. "California Standoff: Miners, Indians And Farmers At War 1850-1865" ($24.95 in paperback from Stansbury Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle) challenges assumptions and develops new historical understanding.

Meticulously detailed, with fifty pages of endnotes, the book's dozen chapters provide a riveting picture of the competing interests swirling around the community Bidwell founded. As Shover notes, "Politics was personal in nineteenth-century Chico, influencing social life and where residents spent their money." There are contemporary resonances everywhere.

Shover disputes what she calls Theodora Kroeber's "misanalysis of Maidu culture" and historical "distortions" all of which have implications for Kroeber's "Ishi In Two Worlds."

Shover also concludes that the Mountain Maidu raided the Mechoopdas working on Bidwell's ranch in the mid-1850s because they likely considered this "collusion."

Shover's research shows that many more Indians than the standard account of 32 died as they were resettled to Round Valley in 1863. "Primary documents disclose that close to 200 … died on the climb up the Coastal range mountain to the reservation." The record, she says, was "manipulated to shield the Army from its failure to deliver the Indians."

For the first time, Shover explains that these Indian deaths were not caused by the Army, but by "the most mortally dangerous type of malaria" that infected the group "while camped near Big Chico Creek in the summer of 1863."

The story Shover tells is one of violence since there were "no effective institutions in place that protected … against abuses." Her study, giving all sides their due, breaks new ground. It is indispensable.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Shane The Shamrock Tries To Find Luck"

Retired teacher Cynthia Hutchinson lives with her husband in Bieber, about fifty-five miles north-northwest of Susanville. She has begun writing a series of children's books, filled with colorful sketches, aimed at the younger set.

The first is "Shane The Shamrock Tries To Find Luck" ($16 in paperback from Dorrance Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle). The sixteen-page tale is followed by fourteen questions about events in the story ("What was the first thing he tried to do that the ladybug suggested?"; "What did Shane hope to try someday?").

It all begins "with this little shamrock named Shane who only had three leaves. And he thought to bring luck to anybody that he must be a four leaf clover. He decided to set out on a journey to see if anybody could help him find luck."

The plants and animals in the forest try to help, and near as they can figure Shane had to become more like them in order to find luck. That ladybug? Well, she said, "You don't need four leaves to bring luck to anyone. You just need to be able to fly like me to have luck. Why don't you climb up on that tree branch and try to fly?"

That doesn't quite work, and Shane hits the ground, only to hear laughter from a nearby rose bush. The rose advises Shane he doesn't have to fly to be lucky; he just has to look beautiful. But decorating himself with fallen rose petals doesn't make much difference. He's still Shane, the three-leaved shamrock, only now covered with rose petals.

A butterfly explains that Shane can grow another leaf if we wraps himself up in a leaf cocoon, but that doesn't work, and a daisy has him stand near her by a stream in a windstorm.

Nothing changes until he meets his four-leaf-clover friend Sissy, and though Shane doesn't grow another leaf he gains something more valuable: an understanding that even a four-leaf-clover can't actually bring luck to anyone. Instead, he learns, what counts is standing by one's friends, especially when they are in need.

As luck would have it, the next story may give Shane that opportunity.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

"Jake And The Hot-Air Balloon"

Paradise resident Maurice "Big Mo" Huffman is known in the music scene for his melding of blues, Southern rock and funk with his award-winning Big Mo And The Full Moon Band ( After he and his wife Robin moved to California in 1989 he began telling their son Miles a bedtime story featuring a ten-year-old orphan named Jake Foster and a talking mouse named Milton.

"Jake And The Hot-Air Balloon" ($11.95 in paperback from Page Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle) is the first in a planned series featuring the intrepid adventurers.

Jake's parents had drowned in a Caribbean storm. His only relative, aunt Hilde, died when he was five, and Jake wound up in a Colorado orphanage.

He "was a tough boy and knew that this was what life had dealt him, but even the toughest boy can face moments that are too hard and where he needs somebody. Jake was alone though, left with his dream of being high up in a hot-air balloon."

Word comes of a nearby hot-air balloon race, and Jake desperately wants to go, but an older bully and his minion at the orphanage get Jake into trouble. He's forced to make the biggest decision of his young life, disobeying those in charge and sneaking off to the races and right into the area where the balloons are set to lift off.

You just know something will happen and, sure enough, Jake finds himself aloft in one of the balloons where he meets Milton the talking mouse, a resident of the balloon basket. It's Milton's job to keep Jake safe, and, it turns out, that's a tall order.

Along the way, sailing over the world, the balloon is shot down by a group of very odd and friendly people on a floating mountain whose job it is to shoot holes in Swiss cheese but who aren't very accurate. Their balloon eventually repaired, Jake and Milton travel to the Caribbean, rescue a girl named Lilly, search for her scientist parents, and fight off a some bad guys.

The action-packed story ends with a few threads hanging, a big yellow bird, and a hint of the adventures to come.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"Origin: A Novel"

According to the Bidwell Mansion Association's website, "In 1841 at the age of 22, John Bidwell became one of the first pioneers to cross the Sierra Nevada to California." Bidwell knew the range because in 1776, the Franciscan missionary Pedro Font named it on a map. Font was born in Spain which has its own Sierra Nevada.

That is where "the former spiritual leader of the Palmarian Catholic Church" lives, according to El País. This "dubious offshoot" of the Roman Catholic Church venerates Francisco Franco and considers Adolph Hitler something of a saint. Wouldn't it be only natural for this ultra-conservative group to try to stop any science that questions faith?

My lame attempt at creepy connections is overshadowed by the master connectionist, Dan Brown. In "Origin" ($29.95 in hardcover from Doubleday; also for Amazon Kindle), Brown notes that all the facts are real. (After the depiction of the Palmarian Church, one of the characters says "you could look it up.") Finding stuff hidden in plain sight is a hallmark of Brown's work.

The thriller once again stars symbologist Robert Langdon and takes place mostly in Barcelona. I chose to listen to the seven-hour audio abridgement narrated by Paul Michael (who also reads the full novel, over eighteen hours' worth), a man of many voices.

Langdon is in Spain attending a mysterious presentation by the atheist billionaire and futurist Edmond Kirsch, his former student, at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Kirsch believes his work in computer modeling and Artificial Intelligence has finally answered the two most important questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going?

Before the big reveal Kirsch is assassinated by a Palmarian, and Langdon and the beautiful museum director, Ambra Vidal, fiancé of the soon-to-be King of Spain, flee for their lives. The entire book is a setup for the eventual revelation of Kirsch's recorded message, and the question is whether what he says puts a scientific arrow through the heart of religion. Spoiler alert: It doesn't; in fact, it's something like a TED Talk, though philosophically incoherent (as Brown seems to realize).

In the end, an interesting casing but not much meat. As for scariness, it's a hollow weenie.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

"The Wealth Of A Nation"

Who is Nathan Englander?

He's an attorney in the California city of Bakerton three quarters of a century in our future. He "was a first rate Rush running guard at UCLA," referring to a game that replaced football, basketball, and most other sports, which required genetic advantages in the players.

Ordinary folks, though, with appropriate golf-like handicaps, could play the highly regulated Rush. As Nathan tells Emerson McKernan, Bakerton's acting Art Museum Director, "the game, like those that it replaced, is a thinly veiled substitute for the battlefield, and the more physical the game, the more obvious it is. That is what fans pay to see."

Chico writer T.B. O'Neill ( creates a chilling dystopian society uncomfortably similar to our own world in "The Wealth Of A Nation" ($15.95 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle).

Rush events are provided by the state for the entertainment of the Citizens, who not only don't work but are forbidden to work. The Workers (and the smaller group called Entrepreneurs) "produce what the nation needs." To keep Workers going, the state pushes the addictive drug Reassert ("the dopamine and serotonin inducer that keeps you level and ready for the day" as the ad says).

As Nathan was taught, "it had taken five generations … to build the wealth of the nation to such abundance, such surplus, that only a minority of the brightest and most capable were asked to work and care for the others. And as a result, there was no more incessant, unrelenting, demeaning competition that kept everyone striving for unaccomplished prosperity."

Nathan's "mother and father were Workers, but his grandparents Citizens." To protect each group from the other, Bakerton sports a giant Wall separating Workers from Citizens. Englander finds himself defending Ari Howard, a Citizen who "defaces" the Wall with his extraordinary graffiti art (his talent is vouched for by Emerson, herself a work of art, who becomes Nathan's love interest).

But there are violent economic and political forces that cannot abide the status quo, and not for noble reasons. The complex and immersive thriller showcases O'Neill's world-building talents and provides an unsettling answer to the question: "What is freedom worth?"