Book Reviews

LA Times

Los Angeles Times
A Nostalgic Vision of the Central Valley
Reviewed by Richard G. Lillard

Motorist using Interstate 5 on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley or US 99 on the east side speed along as if low-flying planes conscious only of speedometer miles. They miss any immediate, close-up, personal sense of local scenes and people, of local history.
Writer Nick Zachreson and photographer Richard Hammond are both lifelong - but youngish - residents of the valley. They appreciate its side roads, its lonely intersections, and it's varied, ordinary citizens. In-Text and pictures, they project the same vision, the same insight.
Hammond's shots show in detail such things as a sagging shed door, dust stirred up by a tractor, and shallow waters on grasslands near Los Banos. The people are generally solitary - a child rolling a worn-out tire, A Basque herding sheep on a two-lane road, a fiddler ("Cactus" Graham) in Exeter, a preacher (Reverend Daniel) in Teviston. Some are pictured in twos or threes - a Mexican mother and child in Firebaugh, three olive pickers in Murray. Abandonment is a recurrent theme, as in pictures of stoves and refrigerators in a thistle patch, a discarded truck, a crossroads school, and a gaunt shack in Fairmead.
Properly stark, the black-and-white photographs catch a pervasively sad mood and imply "the dreams and remembrances of those who neither question the rightness of being there (in the valley) nor hesitate to call it home." The pictures imply what is outside the frames but explicit in the text: a regard for the vanishing world of a small rancher, the self-reliant guy, be he a Japanese raising asparagus, an engineer in a steam locomotive or a "nickel-and-dime" oil driller.
The book is a worthy successor to the Depression tradition of "The Grapes of Wrath" and the photographs by Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein for the Farm Security Administration. In the Hammond-Zachreson San Joaquin Valley there are no freeways, cities, corporations, rich people or colleges. There are no technological plants and factories, though there are views of installations decades old, such as a water tower in Fresno and a grain elevator in Patterson.
Zachreson and Hammond's version of the Central Valley is nostalgic, folklore, elegiac. The voices of tired, old men and women, people now retired, tell of former times, or moral decline at present, of contractors who cheat hard-working Portuguese farmers, of a rancher (a coyote from the word go") who never fully pays employees what he owes them, of ornery people a little town who pester the sheriff, of bored youths who play pool at Mike's Place. "Almost half our girls are pregnant. Everybody just takes it for granted." One old voice paraphrased by Zachreson that it "seems like we were all a lot happier back when there was scarcely enough to go around."

Lillard is formerly a professor of American studies at Cal State L.A. has published books and articles about all parts of California.