Monday, May 17, 2010

Two new books on immigration and life in the Borderlands

Tyche Hendricks, who teaches international reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, will be talking about her new book, The Wind Doesn’t Need a Passport: Stories From the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, tonight at 7:30 pm at Bookmith on Haight Street in San Francisco.  She will be appearing with Peter Schrag, the former editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, who has also written a book that touches on US-Mexico relations called Not Fit For Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.

Hendricks’ book, which draws a vivid portrait of the people who live on both sides of the border, comes out as the US is once again gripped by questions of illegal immigration. The recent passage of a law in Arizona that gives police expanded power to ask people for documents proving their legal status is just the latest expression of frustration over the immigration question. Hendricks is now a special projects coordinator at KQED. 

Ghost Word asked Hendricks about her book and some of the controversies surrounding immigration"

In passing its new restrictive immigration bill, Arizona lawmakers described the border as an almost lawless region, where thieves, drug dealers and murders have almost unfettered access to the U.S. They said the law was necessary because the federal government was not preventing people from coming in to the U.S. illegally. Is life in these border towns really so tense? Is there any common ground between people living on both sides of the border?

The Arizona law authorizing local police to serve as federal immigration agents comes during an economic recession (when immigrants historically have been targets of public frustration) and after years in which Congress has failed to act to overhaul immigration laws. Over the past decade or so, beefed up border enforcement in Texas and California funneled illegal border crossings and a share of drug smuggling across the Arizona desert, so Arizonans get a steady stream of news stories about border troubles.

People who live in the borderlands (in both the United States and Mexico) do bear the brunt of those problems – not only uncontrolled migration and drug trafficking but also pollution, too-rapid growth and strained health care resources. But I also found a remarkable spirit of neighborliness in twin border towns, a shared history and many, many families with cross-border ties. I was inspired by the way that doctors, ranchers, environmental scientists and businesspeople in both countries were rolling up their sleeves in a very pragmatic way and reaching across the border to tackle problems together.

What prompted you to write this book? How did you find your subjects?

The book began with a series I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about the U.S.-Mexico border. In telling the stories of individual people and places and concerns along the length of the border, a larger story emerged. While the border from a distance appears to be a dividing line, I began to see that, up close, it’s actually a bi-national region, one that’s often misunderstood by those of us who live far away from it. It’s the place where our two countries are stitched together – fascinating, vibrant, fraught with serious challenges, but a place whose inhabitants might have something to teach the rest of us about how to get along and tackle our shared concerns.

I found the people and topics I wrote about in the book through classic shoe-leather reporting: talking to people who pointed me to other people. It took plenty of advance preparation and a certain amount of spontaneous serendipity.

California, Arizona, and New Mexico were once part of Mexico. I would think that would give Americans a sense of connection with Mexicans. Instead this country seems to resent the country. Yet Mexicans do so much low paid work that Americans don't seem to want to do.

Until the Mexican American War ended in 1848, California, Arizona, New Mexico were part of Mexico (Texas had seceded a decade earlier) and the awareness of that history is particularly keen in Mexico. At the end the war, tens of thousands of Mexicans became U.S. citizens with the stroke of a pen… Tejanos and Californios, whose roots go back to the days of Spanish colonization. And for more than a century, Mexicans have migrated to the United States for jobs – not only in the border states, but in the steel mills and stockyards of Chicago the mines of Colorado and the orchards of Michigan. The connections forged over generations of migration have led to deep-rooted family ties between the United States and Mexico. Perhaps some of the resentment you describe comes from a lack of familiarity with that shared history.

Can a person live in Mexico and enter the US easily to go grocery shopping or something else? Or vice versa? In what ways do the two countries help one another?

Mexicans who live in the border region who can establish that they have sturdy ties to their communities – jobs and homes – can obtain a U.S. “border crossing card” or “laser visa,” which allows them to make short visits to the border region of the United States, for shopping, visiting, etc. Tens of thousands of Mexicans come into the United States this way every day and tens of thousands of U.S. citizens likewise visit Mexico daily.

The economic activity of those visits is an important contributor to the prosperity of U.S. border cities like San Diego and El Paso. Trade associations, non-profit networks and governments have built relationships across the border. Fire departments in border towns such as Calexico and Mexicali depend on each other for mutual assistance. Hospitals in the two Nogaleses share resources and expertise. Air quality managers meet regularly, as do chambers of commerce. These links are often hampered by long wait times at border ports of entry and the frictions caused by fence building, but local people continue working together just the same.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Donner Party saga still haunts us

Gabrielle Burton has been thinking about Tamsen Donner, the wife of leader of the doomed pioneer party, for more than 25 years.

 She and her family – her husband and three daughters – retraced Tamsen’s journey across the United States in a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. Burton recounted that 1970s journey in a memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, published in 2009 by University of Nebraska Press.
But writing a memoir didn’t get Tamsen Donner out of Burton’s system. She still heard Tamsen’s insistent voice inside her head. Why, Burton wondered, had Tamsen sent her small children to safety that terrible winter of 1846 and stayed behind in the treacherous Sierra Nevada to look after George Donner, who lay close to death?

 Burton attempts to answer that unknowable mystery in her new novel, Impatient With Desire. Written in a diary format, based on letters sent by Tamsen to her family back East, Impatient With Desire is a lyrical novel that explores a  woman’s excruciating dilemma: should she remain loyal to her husband or her children?

  Burton will be speaking about Tamsen Donner and her new novel at Book Passage on Thursday, May 6 at 7 pm. Her book has received rave reviews. It was an Indie Next Pick and a Borders Fiction pick. 
I have written previously about Burton’s fascination with the Donner Party. I can relate to it since I, too, love history. I also admire how she has spun out both fiction and nonfiction books about the Donner Party.

Here’s how Burton describes her book:

“In the spring of 1846, Tamsen Donner, her husband, George, their five daughters, and eighty other pioneers headed to California on the California-Oregon Trail in eager anticipation of new lives out West. Everything that could go wrong did, and an American legend was born.

The Donner Party. We think we know their story--pioneers trapped in the mountains performing an unspeakable act to survive--but we know only that one harrowing part of it. Impatient with Desire brings us answers to the unanswerable question: What really happened in the four months the Donners were trapped in the mountains? And it brings to stunning life a woman--and a love story--behind the myth.

Tamsen Eustis Donner, born in 1801, taught school, wrote poetry, painted, botanized, and was fluent in French. At twenty-three, she sailed alone from Massachusetts to North Carolina when respectable women didn't travel alone. Years after losing her first husband, Tully, she married again for love, this time to George Donner, a prosperous farmer, and in 1846, they set out for California with their five youngest children. Unlike many women who embarked reluctantly on the Oregon Trail, Tamsen was eager to go. Later, trapped in the mountains by early snows, she had plenty of time to contemplate the cost of progress.

Historians have long known that Tamsen kept a journal, though it was never found. In Impatient with Desire, Burton draws on years of historical research to vividly imagine this lost journal--and paints a picture of a remarkable heroine in an extraordinary situation. Tamsen's unforgettable journey takes us from the cornfields of Illinois to the dusty Oregon Trail to the freezing Sierra Nevada Mountains, where she was forced to confront an impossible choice.”

Impatient with Desire is a passionate, heart-wrenching story of courage, hope, and love in hardship, all told at a breathless pace. Intimate in tone and epic in scope, Impatient with Desire is absolutely hypnotic.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Get Haunted at Book Launch Party for Picture the Dead

The Booksmith on Haight Street will be turned into a 19th century spiritualist haunt on Thursday, May 6 when the author and illustrator of a new young adult novel, Picture the Dead, don period costumes for a reading of their work.

Oh, yeah. That local man of mystery, Lemony Snicket, will be acting as ghost.

The event is the formal launch of Picture the Dead, described alternately as a ‘illustrated paranormal teen romance novel,” or a book with a “Cold Mountain feel.” It was written by Adele Griffin and illustrated by Lisa Brown, who draws the three-panel book reviews for the Chronicle. She is also married to Snicket (aka Daniel Handler)

That family is known for its fun and sense of humor and the book launch promised to provide both. Those who wander into the Booksmith can try their luck communicating with dead spirits, or if that doesn’t work, get their picture taken with a paranormal being. (Snicket)

Griffin and Brown got the idea for Picture the Dead a few years ago when their two families rented an enormous house outside of Boston for a vacation. While there, they got this sense that there was another, well, non-human presence, in the house.

“We thought it would be restful but it ended up being different,” said Brown. “It felt like there was a presence in the house. It wasn’t us, it wasn’t the kids. It was like we were in someone else’s house and we were the invaders. It wasn’t sinister, but you felt you weren’t alone.”

Then Brown and Griffin stumbled upon an antique Victorian trunk in the basement. Crammed inside was an old scrapbook filled with Civil War photographs ringed in black, and “spirit photos” that purported to show the dead communicating with the living. Spiritualism and séances were popular in the latter half of the 19th century, the pair point out on their website.

“It was almost as if it was inviting us to this story,” said Griffin.

The trunk proved to be a conversation piece and Griffin and Brown soon found themselves collaborating on a historical novel set during the Civil War. It centers around Jenny Lovell, an orphan living with her uncle and not-so-kind aunt.  When her fiancé dies in the war, she soon begins to sense that his spirit is not at rest. Jenny attempts to find out how and why her fiancé died, and her questions bring her into an alliance with a spirit photographer. Secrets spill out and soon nothing is as it appears.

The pair did extensive research for the book and based the settings and many of the details on actual events and people. Brown studied daguerreotypes from the Library of Congress and drew her illustrations using those portraits as a guide. She then put the pictures on her computer and remastered them.

The Booksmith event on Haight Street starts at 7:30 pm. If you can't make the party, will be streaming the party live.