Red Hen Press, 2003.
A Review by Harriet Rafter.
You know the story: a man, or a family, but usually two people, wander through the California countryside searching for a job, a home, a community, a new life. They may ride in a jalopy, or on a horse, but typically they straggle on foot, though the deserts, or the mountains, or the central valley–those sites of potential plenty, which our heroes pray will yield them gold or glory or at least physical sustenance.
If two, one of the wanderers is in some real or perceived way flawed–the wrong race, physically or mentally different–and the other must have strength or cunning for both. For they are pursued–by the Spanish, by the miners, by whichever social group temporarily holds power in that part of the state. And you hope that they–or at least one of them–will survive.
You know this story because it is the California tale. Examples? Joaquin Murietta, the dashing bandit outsmarting the posses pursuing him. Ramona and Alessandro, eternally on the run in their own country. Frank Norris’s McTeague stumbling across Death Valley carrying his beloved canary, and John Steinbeck–well, Steinbeck made a career out of this plot, from (to name a few) the coming-of-age (and simultaneously death) of “Flight” to the novella “Of Mice and Men” to (of course) The Grapes of Wrath. What else would our literature be about, but the search for or the destruction or failure of the California Garden of Eden?
In her ambitious novel, Cris Mazza offers her version of this most characteristic California story. Homeland is nothing less than a re-enactment of the eviction from Paradise and (what else) a journey from emotional isolation to community. The plot employs those situations and characters we enumerated above: middle-aged Ronnie (Veronica) and her father, formerly a farmer and hunter, now severely disabled by a stroke, travel through Southern California. Formerly they lived in an eden composed of (as Ronnie always calls them) “our father,” “our mother,” Ronnie and her younger brother. Father and daughter are on a pilgrimage to fulfill a promise to “our mother,” who committed suicide 24 years earlier, to find and scatter her ashes and those of Ronnie’s brother, dead in a childhood accident. Ronnie hopes that they can create a new home somewhere, once they fulfill their quest. But this plot outline hardly describes Mazza’s novel.
What differentiates Homeland from its predecessors is the psychological complexity of situation and characters. The characters of Jackson, Norris, and Steinbeck cited above interest and move us, but complicated they are not.1 Homeland, on the other hand, is a psychological mystery, and this informs both Mazza’s characterizations and her style.
The mystery revolves around the little brother’s death. So traumatic was it that, like Miss Havisham stopping the clocks at the exact time she learns of her lover’s desertion, Ronnie stops her life at that moment. She grows older, of course, home-schooled by her devastated mother who clearly blames her for Chad’s death, an athletic swimmer who purposely drowns the day after giving Ronnie her last high school lesson. But Ronnie has missed all of the experiences common to contemporary California youth:
“She never took a test, never wrote a term paper, never sent an application to any college, never joined scouts or soccer or band. Didn’t ever have a part-time job flipping hamburgers or scooping ice cream Never danced under black lights or a disco glittering-ball, never waved a pompom, never lay on the floor with her feet against the wall twirling the phone cord around one finger and pressing the receiver to her face, never rode in a fast convertible. No softball teams, no summer camp, no cap-and-gown, no new workplace wardrobe, no first car nor first apartment, no girls’ night out, no wedding showers, never a bridesmaid.”2
Never a love affair either, of course, or a desire to do anything but atone for the part she believes she played in Chad’s death. (“. . . she chose her sentence . . . to doggedly follow the life her parents started. . . ” ). But how did he die? She recalls him falling from a tree; she remembers him playing with an eagle which her mother had shot–but until Ronnie can learn exactly how Chad died, she is frozen, emotionally and experiencially Chad’s seven-year-old sister.
Nothing expresses Ronnie’s refusal to participate in life than her appearance. No dewey Ramona she; at 41, she is in good shape, but “ravaged”–and losing her hair: “is she going bald for her brother, because he can’t?” (13). (Yes.) She wears multiple layers of clothes, ostensibly to protect herself from the pinches of the nursing-home residents she attends to, later to protect herself from the genuinely dangerous assaults by the teenage boys in the neighborhood where she and her father wind up camping. As the novel proceeds, and as Ronnie is recalled to life (this really is a Dickensian book), her hair starts to grow out and her layers peel off.
Though Homeland is predominantly a study of personality and regeneration, it would not be a California novel if it did not also reflect some of the social issues afflicting the state. Homeland reflects the current divide in California between those with housing and those without. Ronnie and her father are pursued by vicious teenaged boys, whose community they camp nearby. As day laborers, they and their Mexican comrades are insulted and sometimes attacked. Not since Steinbeck, I think, has anyone written so knowledgeably about, and with such appreciation and delight in, physical labor.
Homeland perfectly illustrates how style and meaning can be intertwined. We are often inside Ronnie’s mind, repeating over and over Chad’s death, her mother’s suicide, other incidents which may be real, or simply Ronnie’s version of events. As Ronnie obsessively replays these scenes, the reader relives them with her. “[The past] was a mistake. An accident” Ronnie repeats. But mistake and accident are not the same; my Concise Oxford Dictionary defines mistake as “an error of judgment,” and accident as “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally.” And therein lies Ronnie’s dilemma: if mistake, she must continue her atonement; if accident, she is free.
There is, of course, a love story–how can Ronnie bloom without a hero? Adrian, the anthropology student who has dropped out to live with homeless Mexican laborers, is an attractive fantasy figure, with his lean frame, ponytail, and environmentally-sensitive world view. He brews a mean cup of natural tea, and knows all the tricks of home-making out of doors. (Based on poet Gary Snyder, perhaps? Another California literary tradition.) Fortunately, all that is required is that Ronnie have her first crush, and be liked back by the man, and Mazza handles the relationship delicately.
Mazza convincingly presents the world of rural California–lives spent hunting and fishing, people intimate with the trees and flowers and creatures whose landscape they share. This may be the oldest California literary tradition of all.
“Why doesn’t anyone think of where they are as home?” asks Adrian (168). Because it is the essence of Californians not to be at home, to be looking for home. Homeland is Cris Mazza’s complex and touching contribution to that old conversation.
1 Certainly these writers could and did create complicated characters–Sra. Moreno, Buck Annixter, and Cathy Ames come to mind–but not those mentioned above.
2 Cris Mazza, Homeland (LA: Red Hen Press, 2003), 39.
About the Reviewer:
Harriet Rafter got her MA in English Literature from
SFSU, where she teaches courses in California Literature.