Frank Bergon’s astonishing portrayals of people in California’s San Joaquin Valley reveal a country where the culture of a vanishing West lives on in many twenty-first-century Westerners, despite the radical technological transformations around them. All are immigrants, migrants, their children, or their grandchildren whose lives intertwine with the author’s, including several races and ethnicities: Chicanos, Mexicans, African Americans, Italians, Asians, Native Americans, Scots-Irish descendants of Steinbeck’s Okies, and Basques of the author’s own heritage.
Bergon presents a powerful array of rural and small-town Westerners who often see themselves as part of a region and a way of life most Americans aren’t aware of or don’t understand, their voices unheard, their stories untold. In these essays, Westerners from the diverse heritage of the San Joaquin Valley include California’s legendary Fred Franzia, the maker of the world’s best-selling Charles Shaw wines dubbed “Two-Buck Chuck,” and Darrell Winfield, a Dust Bowl migrant and lifelong working cowboy who for more than thirty years reigned as the iconic Marlboro Man. Their voices help us understand the complexities of today’s rural West, where Old West values intersect with New West realities. This is the West (and America today)—a region in conflict with itself.
Part I: Working the Dirt
1. The Vision of Two-Buck Chuck 15 2. Illegal Immigrant to Valley Farmer 40 3. Basque Dirt 68 4. Drought in the Garden of the Sun 81
Part II: Western Voices in the Great Valley 5. Valley Tolerance 109 6. Black Ranch Girl 119 7. Chicano Vet 128 8. New Woman Warrior 139 9. A Valley Indian’s Search for Roots 152 10. Native American Okie 167
Part III: Marlboro Country 11. Rebellion in Marlboro Country 185 12. West of California: The Marlboro Man 201
About the Author 255
Frank Bergon is a critically acclaimed novelist, critic, and essayist whose writings focus primarily on the history and environment of the American West. He was born in Ely, Nevada, and grew up on a ranch in Madera County in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He has taught at the University of Washington and for many years at Vassar College, where he is Professor Emeritus of English. He is a member of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.
"In 12 prose portraits of people and place, western novelist and historian Bergon portrays the marriage of Old West spirit with New West realities...a way of life and culture he believes to be misunderstood and misreported... Bergon sets this record straight with close-up stories of people with whom he grew up and befriended in the San Joaquin Valley, homeland of his own Basque progenitors." —Booklist
"... a tour of the interior West worth taking." —Kirkus Reviews
"With a novelist’s fine gifts for character and scene, a historian’s depth of perspective, and a local’s intimate knowledge and love, Frank Bergon leads us through California’s Big Valley, where the past lies entwined with the present and every critical tension in modern America plays out in its most distilled form." —Miriam Horn, author of Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland
"Novelist and critic Frank Bergon paints a remarkable portrait of life in California’s Great Central Valley through his loving sketches of rural and small-town Westerners." —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University, author of Colored People: A Memoir
"No one grasps the astonishing diversity of the American West better than Frank Bergon.... Bergon weaves a Breughel-like tapestry of today’s rural West. And he does so in prose insightful, judicious, even amusing—as crisply restrained and wryly revealing as the figures it describes. Once started, I dare you (Western style) to try to put this book down!" —Lee Clark Mitchell, author of Late Westerns: The Persistence of a Genre
"With the perspective and compassion of a long-gone native son, Frank Bergon returns to his boyhood home in California’s San Joaquin Valley to understand the contemporary West. He introduces us to antigovernment ranchers, disappointed writers, successful physicians, and enterprising farmers..... Bergon’s beautifully drawn portraits capture a slice of the twenty-first-century West where old values are tightly held, idiosyncrasies are gently endured, and change is acknowledged, if not always embraced." —Martha A. Sandweiss, Professor of History, Princeton University, author of Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
"The West, with its iconic landscapes, has long served as a scenic backdrop — for photos, paintings, movies, myths and dreams. Bergon’s essays turn the focus on the West's people, and on California's enduring appeal for newcomers. His subjects share a certain tenacity and a gift for adaptation and reinvention, traits that prove just as useful for the businesspeople and high-tech ranchers of today as they were for the cowboys and Dust Bowl migrants of his youth." —High Country News
"The introduction’s pithy summary of how the mythology of the ‘Old West’ both collides with and overlaps with the realities of the ‘New West’ is compelling and rich…" —San Francisco Review of Books
"With a powerful cast of characters, Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man helps readers understand the complexities of today's rural West." —Sir Readalot
"This generous-hearted book, without a whiff of cynicism, is, ultimately, a clear and quietly crafted meditation on how much has been lost of the Old West, even in the two generations since Bergon was a kid. But it also captures what of the Old West has been preserved down to this day…" —Aris Janigian, Los Angeles Review of Books
"… an incisive and intriguing collection of essays that seek to illuminate the personalities that comprise the western identity" —Western American Literature