3 out of 4 stars
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The Road to Delano by John DeSimone is a work of historical fiction set during the strike by Latino and Filipino grape pickers in Delano, California in the late 1960s. Led by Cesar Chavez, head of the National Farm Workers Association, the workers fought with grape growers for the right to decent pay and conditions.
The story opens in 1933. ‘Sugar’ Duncan is known as a gambler who can farm. He moves to Delano in California and wins enough money playing cards to buy himself a decent sized parcel of land. He builds a house and gets married to Shirley, who agrees to be his wife only on the condition that he gives up gambling, which he promises to do. Over the next few years, Sugar switches from farming wheat to growing grapes. By the time his son Jack is born, he is one of the leading producers in the area. When Jack is eight, Sugar drives to San Francisco to attend a meeting. He never comes home. His body is found in the wreck of his car following an evening spent drinking and gambling, according to reports.
Fast-forward to 1968. Shirley and Jack are still living in the house that Sugar built but their land has been sold. They are now facing the prospect of having to sell the house too. Jack is in his final year at high-school. A talented baseball player, he is determined to pitch his way to a university scholarship. His best friend and teammate, Adrian Sanchez, has similar ambitions. The biggest obstacle facing them is not any lack of talent, but the trouble in the fields around Delano. Jack has to save his house from being sold to the same neighbor who took his father’s land. There are also unexplained issues surrounding his father’s death that he needs to understand. Adrian, meanwhile, wants to support his own father, who is one of the Mexican pickers striking for better conditions. The baseball-shaped bubble that they have lived in from childhood is burst by events unfolding around them. Their lives are under threat. Will they survive to get their scholarships and take the road out of Delano?
This is a very good novel that held my attention throughout. The ages of the main characters and their girlfriends mean that the novel sometimes has the flavor of a high-school story. Certainly, there is a coming-of-age element to it, as the young protagonists come to terms with the fact that their trust in the law and the media is sometimes misplaced. This, however, is a fast-paced thriller with a social conscience. There are self-conscious echoes of other times, other writers; at one point Adrian makes the observation that the road to Delano is the same road taken by the Joad family, the characters in Steinbeck’s celebrated novel, The Grapes of Wrath. This theme of people crossing borders in search of a better life is one of several topical issues explored in the book. The role of the media in shaping a narrative is also highlighted, as is the sometimes difficult relationship between immigrant communities and the police.
The novel is told from a third-person point of view, mostly from Jack’s perspective. The author writes knowledgeably about the social and political conditions of this difficult period in California’s history. He also writes authoritatively about the other recurrent themes of the book, such as baseball and poker. If the book has a weakness, indeed, it is that the detailed descriptions of ball games or poker games may leave readers with little interest in those activities feeling a little lost.
I’m awarding this book three out of four stars. There are a few errors scattered around the book, but since I was reading an ‘Advanced Uncorrected Copy’, I would hope that these will be weeded out before the book goes on sale. I recommend it to readers who enjoy thrillers with a political slant. Those who enjoy baseball and Texas Hold’em poker will find it particularly enjoyable. Aside from a few swear words, the book is free of profanity and explicit sex, so it is suitable for young adults and over.
Road to Delano
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