Tuesday, April 27, 2021

"Tell Them What You Want"

"I'm Bernie, and I'm seven.... A social worker ... just picked me up from the Hamilton Ohio hospital and is taking me to live in some town called Oxford.... I was born in Lincoln Heights, a Colored part of Cincinnati, Ohio on March 1, 1946." 

Bernie's mother had been arrested, along with Johnny McVay, a violently abusive man "mama takes up with" at what Bernie calls the "Devil House." She is forced to cut the grass with scissors and had been severely burned from the fire Johnny insisted be kept going in the backyard. He calls her "Puke." 

Hospitalized for malnutrition, she is now headed to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles, an older, caring Black couple willing to take in the "State kid." Bernie's story spans the 1950s to the 1980s in the midst of a burgeoning civil rights movement. She faces immense challenges in her quest for a college education, but she's not a quitter. 

"Tell Them What You Want" ($16.95 in paperback from Culicidae Press; also for Amazon Kindle), by Laverne Merritt-Gordon with Beau Grosscup, is a stunning story. 

Merritt-Gordon was born in 1946 in Lincoln Heights, Ohio, one of sixteen children. She has degrees from Miami University in Ohio and Purdue University. She now lives in Florida with her husband Denman P. Gordon.

Beau ("Bobo") Grosscup--Chico State Political Science Professor Emeritus--shows up in Bernie's story. Growing up in Oxford, Ohio he meets Bernie when he is ten. "It takes fifty-some years of friendship," he says in the book's prologue, "before Bernie tells me her secrets."

As the 1970s pass, Bernie reflects on her college experience, two unsuccessful marriages, her two sons, Byran and Benton, and her efforts to escape that little girl who endured so much. 

She remembers "getting whipped with an ironing cord, eating food from garbage cans, flames burning up her belly.... My body sags as I realize that little girl is still with me. I thought, yes prayed, I had left her behind.... But she's still here, deep in my soul.... Slowly, the thought of little Bernie clinging to me for dear life begins to make sense."

Readers will never forget her.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021


Since her inaugural novel, "Venice Beach," Chicoan Emily Gallo has been chronicling the ever-expanding connections among a group of "misfits" who meet each other on the boardwalk. 

In her new book, Gallo, fueled by "endless cups of Earl Grey tea" at the Tin Roof Café, takes up the story of Kate McCoy. "After Kate's marriage broke up in her twenties, she had decided that motherhood and marriage were not in the stars for her ... until she met Lawrence" Ellison, a retired UCLA English professor.

They soon marry and now, after Kate's Peace Corps assignment, the LA couple is celebrating by exploring Anza-Borrego State Park during the day, and each other at night. "Just because we're on Medicare," Kate tells Lawrence, "doesn't mean we can't have a little fun."

"DREAMer" ($12.95 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle) begins with their discovery of a girl, perhaps about twelve, sitting "forlornly against a boulder" near Palm Canyon Drive. The girl seems unable to speak or perhaps doesn't know English. No one else is around, and so Lawrence and Kate invite the reluctant girl into the car and drive through a series of small towns looking for someone in authority.

In Julian (known for its apple pie) the girl refuses to go into the sheriff's office so the couple takes her home as they try to figure what to do next. It appears from some of the things the girl is carrying that her name is Marisol. Technically, she's just been kidnaped. And that is keeping Lawrence awake.

"I am worried for her," he tells Kate, "but the fact is that we haven't been straight with law enforcement ... and that is not going to help the situation.... Kate, you're not a Black man living in this country. You cannot understand how much I have to worry about in everyday situations."

What follows is an extraordinary detective story as Kate and Lawrence attempt to find Marisol's identity and whether she has relatives in the U.S., calling in friends to help and avoiding law enforcement. 

Gallo brings home the reality faced by children in Marisol's situation, and underlines the couple's compassion and tenacity in their quest against all odds.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

"Already Toast: Caregiving And Burnout In America"

Kate Washington (kawashington.com) is a freelance writer, Sacramento Bee food critic, and a Chico High grad (her dad and brother are still in town), earning a Ph.D. in English from Stanford. She married Brad Buchanan in 1999; they have two daughters and now live in Sacramento because of his teaching job at Sacramento State. 

"I sprinted eagerly into marriage," she writes. "I was young, naive, steeped in mainstream white feminism, and I thought equality was there for the plucking." The reality of married life was much more problematic and in 2014 an earthquake came to shake its very foundations. Brad, in his mid-forties, was diagnosed with what was thought to be a manageable, slow-moving lymphoma.

But one ordinary Saturday morning Kate was summoned to the bathroom. Brad was coughing. "Blood was splashing out of his mouth, blooming over the white porcelain of the sink. The splashes coming up out of his throat made little noises, like the gurgle of an unstuck drain. ... Each time he coughed it seemed like half a cup." Kate had to add "caregiver" to her regular duties as mom and partner, and it almost broke her.

The searing, stunningly honest story is told in "Already Toast: Caregiving And Burnout In America" ($24.95 in hardcover from Beacon press; also for Amazon Kindle and in audiobook format). Brad's cancer was aggressive; the only hope was a stem-cell transplant from his brother, but that led to further complications, including near blindness, which almost took his life. 

"Fried and frazzled" as a caregiver, Washington endures a kind of "erasure." "As a caregiver, I sometimes felt like I barely existed as an individual." 

"Burnout," she adds, "kills empathy and makes worse caregivers of all of us who suffer from it. More than that, it made me a worse person: less kind, less patient, less fun to be around." 

Washington recognizes her own privilege is not typical and proposes the creation of "networks of care" (recommending aarp.org/caregiving), though she admits there's no single answer. But, she says at the end, "If society wants us to keep caring for others, it's going to have to show a little more care for us."

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

"Midnight House"

In 1993, seventh-grader and Redding native Ian Dawson was abducted in what is now the community's Clover Creek Preserve. Held for a time by two older boys, he escaped major injuries but, as time passed and the assailants were never identified, he decided to write a fictionalized account. Twenty-five years after the event, Dawson, now living in Los Angeles, published "The Field."

The YA novel centered around Daniel and his best friend Kyle, both fourteen, and two adductors, James and Austin. In self defense Daniel causes Austin's death, James is imprisoned, and the threat is over. The end.

Not exactly. Now, in "Midnight House" ($19.15 in paperback from BookBaby; also for Amazon Kindle, see thefieldya.com) Dawson offers a crackling-good YA sequel that will have readers hooked. Daniel Robinson and Kyle Hanson are now sixteen, attending Redding's Enterprise High School, still besties, though Daniel's trauma-fueled nightmares have made him secretly dependent on sleeping pills and caffeine. Will there ever be closure?

Kyle is the captain of the JV basketball Hornets, too admiring of Luke Darden, the Varsity captain. When Luke invites him and a few other teammates to some "games" at the mysterious Midnight House near Whiskeytown Lake--ostensibly to determine who will be the next Varsity captain--Kyle is all in. Daniel is suspicious, but can't dissuade his friend. Turns out Luke's older brother, Tyler, was best friends with Austin, and now he schemes to see Kyle and Daniel dead. The plot ... sickens.

The first part of the novel is filled with lighthearted banter about sports and girls. Kyle's girlfriend is in London on a study abroad program; Daniel meets Amber, who "was behind the counter at The Beadman, a popular arts and crafts store on Park Marina Drive in Redding...." New in town, she and Daniel hit it off. Both are the same age, both attend EHS. Sparks, anyone?

Then the story becomes darker after Luke and Tyler discover who is responsible for Austin's death. Kyle's obsession with pleasing Luke puts Daniel and Amber in mortal danger. 

The extreme hazing at Midnight House gives way to a nightmarish life-and-death showdown at the Sundial Bridge which will test the very meaning of true friendship.