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A Novel Guide to Ventura County’s Role in Literature

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just in time for that lazy day at the beach--it’s our annual Summer Book Guide!

This year, we’re pleased to offer a special edition: the often-requested but never-before-published guide to novels set right here in Ventura County!

You’ll want to read the classic tear - jerker about poor coal miners, “How Green Was My Simi Valley.”

Too dated? Then perhaps you’ll enjoy Jackie Collins’ steamy potboiler, “Hollywood-By-The-Sea Wives.”

Too glitzy? Then how about this laff-riot about football hijinks in an upscale Thousand Oaks neighborhood, “Semi-Rural.”

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And by the way, culture vultures, now’s the time to reserve your seats for Donizetti’s tragic Ventura County opera, “Lucia di Lammermoorpark”

All right. So maybe we made all that up. So maybe Ventura County hasn’t exactly been a fount of inspiration for authors.

Maybe Philip Marlowe found prettier dames and tougher customers in L.A. than in, say, Camarillo. And maybe Santa Barbara gets a lot more attention from big-name authors than Santa Paula. Hey, it’s tough competing with a city that had its own TV soap opera.

“I guess we’re just a dim bulb between the bright lights of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles,” sighed one Ventura bookseller, reflecting the popular opinion about the county as a literary wasteland.

Ventura County’s most famous fictional appearance is little more than a cameo appearance in some other place’s novel. It is the scene in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” where Doc orders a beer milkshake at a roadside stand in Ventura.

(“ ‘Put in some milk, and add half a bottle of beer. Give me the other half in a glass--no sugar in the milk shake,’ ” Doc instructs the waitress, a “blonde beauty with just the hint of a goiter.” The concoction, Steinbeck informs us, “wasn’t so bad--it just tasted like stale beer and milk.”)

But readers shouldn’t write off Ventura County just yet.

When it comes to fiction, the fact is that this county has a literary tradition that dates back more than a century.

Right now, the cities of Ventura and Oxnard are enjoying a run on the national best-seller charts.

Every spring, hundreds of school kids make the trip to the Channel Islands National Park, drawn there by a children’s book that has been hailed as a classic ever since it was first published in 1960.

And a 109-year-old novel is still bringing out the handkerchiefs with its epic story of doomed love amid the beauty of the Santa Clara River valley.

So here is the real Ventura County reading list.

And this one you can file under nonfiction.

*

Would you believe . . . Ventura and Oxnard on the best-seller lists of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times?

It’s true. But finding them takes a little sleuthing.

The novel is “J is for Justice,” author Sue Grafton’s latest in her series of mysteries that follows investigator Kinsey Millhone through the alphabet. Millhone is the bullet-scarred gumshoe whose passion for junk food is rivaled only by President Clinton’s.

On this outing, she is hired by the California Fidelity insurance company to locate one Wendell Jaffee. Company officials are not amused to discover that accounts of Jaffee’s death may have been exaggerated--especially after the company paid off on his $500,000 life insurance policy.

Millhone’s search takes her to Ventura and Oxnard, where Jaffee may be living under an assumed name.

In the spirit of the genre, the two cities also appear under assumed names, and Grafton indulges in a little fun with their new identities. She renames them Perdido and Olvidadas--as in “Lost” and “Forgotten.”

Grafton even dreams up a semi-bogus history for the cities, mingling real Spanish missionaries with fictitious friars.

“I had so much fun inventing the towns’ history. When I finished it, I thought ‘this is true--it could almost be true,’ ” Grafton said by phone during a recent New York City book tour.

She said her son, Jay Schmidt, lives in Ventura and for years has urged her to use it as a setting for a Kinsey Millhone book.

“Ventura still has the feeling of sunshine and beach and open air,” she said. “You can still look at a hillside and see trees instead of subdivisions.

“What I like about Ventura is you see the history. You see the Victorian structures. You see the Spanish influence. You see the bungalows that went up in the ‘30s, ’40 and ‘50s. The town itself has a personality,” Grafton said.

She hews close to the geography of the real Ventura. She researched the city by driving around with a Polaroid camera, taking snapshots of interesting buildings and scenes.

One of “J’s” main characters, the mysterious Renata Huff, lives in the “Perdido Keys.” Yes, Grafton modeled them after the real Ventura Keys, where homes back onto fingers of sea water that lead to the harbor. Instead of back-yard decks, residents maintain back-yard docks.

Grafton renamed Ventura’s Seaward Avenue to Seacoast Avenue, and turned the sprawling mass of pale concrete that is the Ventura County Government Center into a sprawling mass of pale concrete called the Perdido County Government Center.

Which begs the question, why change the names if the author is going to stick so close to reality?

It gives her wiggle room, Grafton replied.

“One reason I fictionalize is that I feel free to invent where I need to. Often my version of reality is far more entertaining than reality itself,” she said. “As I tell a story, I may need to move a piece of real estate. I may need to change the weather patterns.

“If I call it Ventura or Oxnard, I always get letters telling me I did it wrong. But I am the sole living expert on Perdido and Olvidadas.”

Grafton continues to seek out fresh settings for Millhone, who is getting a bit stale in Santa Barbara (which has its own pseudonym, Santa Teresa). But don’t expect Kinsey Millhone to take a case in Camarillo or Thousand Oaks.

“Don’t tell the people of Thousand Oaks, but I don’t think it’s a very interesting town,” Grafton said. “There’s no town, it’s just shopping malls. Shopping centers, by and large, have no personality.”

*

Oxnard and Ventura need no fake IDs in “Mitigating Circumstances,” another crime novel published this year that takes a much ruder--and bloodier--view of the two cities than Sue Grafton did in “J is for Justice.”

Nancy Taylor Rosenberg’s novel already has received a torrent of local attention for its use of landmarks such as Ventura’s Elephant Bar and Oxnard’s La Colonia neighborhood.

The plot of “Mitigating Circumstances” hinges around the fact that inmates in the Ventura County Government Center jail can look through their windows and watch county employees coming and going in the center’s massive parking lots.

It’s something Rosenberg used to worry about when she worked there as a investigative probation officer.

“Every day, I’d go to interview major criminals,” she said. “I’d go out and look up at the windows and think, ‘what happened if one of these guys got out and made bail, and he wanted to get me?’ ”

Rosenberg dreamed up a few gruesome answers to her question. One of them became “Mitigating Circumstances.”

But this crime paid off for Rosenberg. The first-time author pocketed more than $900,000 after “Mitigating Circumstances” got caught up in a bidding war for publication and movie rights.

*

When development killed the Ventura that Ray Maloney had grown up with and loved, he decided to express his anger in words.

The result was his 1986 novel for teen-agers, “The Impact Zone.”

In this coming-of-age novel, 15-year-old Jim Nichols discovers himself through his passion for surfing--a passion that Nichols, like Maloney, honed on the beaches of Ventura.

Ventura’s decline is one of the themes that runs through “The Impact Zone.” In one scene, Jim and his father, a famous surfing photographer who is divorced from Jim’s mother, are cruising through Ventura:

“I watched him and he looked out the window at the burger stands and gas stations and supermarkets rolling by outside. Finally he said, ‘This used to be all orchards and fields. V-town used to be very beautiful . . . it used to be special. Now look at it. They’ve turned it into a . . . plastic pop-out dump.”

The words are close to home for Maloney, whose family moved to Ventura when he was 4 and whose second home was the Fairgrounds beach.

The Fairgrounds is a fitting symbol for Maloney’s disillusionment with Ventura. The beach where he learned to surf is now an tidy public park with a parking lot, groomed strips of grass, benches, a wide undulating sidewalk for roller-blading and bicycling, and a fancy name to match: “Surfer’s Point at Seaside Park.”

“What happened at the Fairgrounds is typical of just how stupid people can be,” Maloney said in a telephone conversation from Germany, where he moved last year. “My brother calls the Fairgrounds the “surfing mall” now. That was a wonderful, open, unpopulated, unpaved, wild part of Ventura up until 15 years ago.”

“The Impact Zone,” Maloney’s first novel, made an initial stir. It won the Delacorte Press Prize for outstanding first young adult novel.

But the experience eventually soured Maloney on publishing. He has never sold another book and for awhile supported himself selling sunglasses at flea markets.

Maloney’s wife now teaches in a U.S. Department of Defense school in southern Germany, and Maloney said he literally works for food--painting and refurbishing furniture in exchange for meals at a guest house.

Living overseas hasn’t dimmed his feelings toward his home town.

“It was paradise, but every paradise is cursed because it’s so nice to live there,” he said. “Now it’s just an ugly, pop-out, junky sprawl. People just are stupid. What do you do with paradise? You rape it and then you make money by it.”

But not every memory of Ventura is tainted. From his village in the Bavarian forest, Maloney reckons that the nearest waves are about 13 hours away, in France.

“If you talk to my family,” Maloney told a reporter calling from California, “tell my brother to send me my surfboard.”

*

Hilma Wolitzer used Ventura as a setting for her 1983 novel “In the Palomar Arms” but can’t remember if she’s even been there.

The New York author admitted that she chose Ventura simply by looking at a map.

No, she wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on her readers. The external setting of the “Palomar Arms” is mostly inconsequential to the story. Her novel instead dissects the emotions of a triangular relationship between Daphne Moss, a college student who works at the Palomar Arms Senior Home in Ventura, her married lover Kenny, and Kenny’s wife Joy.

Wolitzer, whose modest-selling novels are favorites of critics, wanted to set her novel in Southern California to mirror the intensity of her lovers’ relationships.

“There was something about the lushness of California vegetation that I wanted in the story to reflect some of the passion,” she said.

But having decided to put Kenny in Los Angeles, Wolitzer needed a setting where Daphne would be close, but not that close.

“I needed a place where she could live where her path and his wife’s could not cross too often, and she would still be accessible to him,” she said. On a map, Ventura seemed like the obvious choice. Kenny spends a lot of time on the Ventura Freeway.

Wolitzer returned to Southern California as a setting for a forthcoming novel, which she just finished writing.

For research, Wolitzer visited relatives in the San Fernando Valley and had them drive her around Los Angeles.

“I went around feeling palm trees and leaning against them,” she said. “I wanted to see if you could catch your sweater on one.”

*

David Alspeth, 14, sails from Ventura Harbor on a sloop. He is alone, with only the ashes of his uncle, which he will bury at sea. But not far from Anacapa Island his boat, the Frog, is blown off course by a fierce storm. Over the next nine days David nearly starves to death, is idled by a dead calm, nearly swallowed by a shark, nearly run over by an oil tanker, and nearly capsized by another storm.

It is Gary Paulsen’s “The Voyage of the Frog,” a boy-against-nature story in the tradition of his best-selling novel for young adults, “Hatchet.”

Paulsen, who now lives in southern New Mexico, said he was intimately familiar with the Ventura setting. Many years ago, after he quit his job and set out to be a writer, Paulsen lived on a boat in the Ventura Harbor for eight months. He chose it simply because it was the cheapest housing available.

“You could get a sloop there really cheap because it was so rough,” Paulsen said. Because the breakwater had not been built, the harbor was dangerous and lightly used.

Paulsen later owned a 28-foot sailboat that he kept in the Oxnard harbor. He credited that boat for nursing him back to health after a particularly brutal experience.

In 1985, Paulsen made his second running of the Iditarod, the grueling 1,000-mile Alaskan sled-dog race that he wrote about in his book “Dogsong.”

Although he now lives in the desert, Paulsen said he is still drawn to the ocean.

“I love the Pacific,” he said. “I love it the way you love a woman, or you love writing. I don’t feel the same thing about the Atlantic.”

*

David Alspeth’s fictional voyage took him near the site of what is the best-known Ventura County novel of all.

Every year, hundreds of school children follow the Frog’s course from Ventura Harbor, except they travel in powerboats instead of sailboats.

Their destination is Anacapa Island. The novel is “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Written by Scott O’Dell, it was hailed as a classic when it was first published in 1960.

The story, loosely based on a true incident, describes the adventure of the young Indian girl Karana, who spent 18 years alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins after her tribespeople left.

Anacapa is not the true Island of the Blue Dolphins. That is San Nicolas Island, which is owned by the U.S. Navy and off-limits to visitors. Visitors instead head for the nearer Anacapa or Santa Cruz islands.

Going ashore on one recent field trip was Michael Garcia, a fifth-grade student at Glen City School in Santa Paula. The school’s fifth-graders make the Anacapa Island cruise every year, after reading “Island of the Blue Dolphins” in fourth grade.

But Garcia was underwhelmed by the experience. Anacapa, he decided, was merely adequate as an understudy for the real island.

“All we’ve seen is, like, clam shells,” Garcia said. “But it’s different from the book because there’s no wild dogs. There’s no seals.”

A pack of wild dogs, which feature prominently in the book because of their threat to Karana, is the one thing just about every student seems to remember about the book.

To some students, though, Karana’s feat wasn’t all that difficult.

Asked if he could survive alone on an island, as Karana did, student Christian Zuniga squinted up at Anacapa Island’s barren hills, stripped by incessant wind of all but the scrubbiest vegetation. Then he looked down the rocky shore, where classmates scrambled after miniscule crabs and pulled long strings of limp seaweed from tide pools.

“Probably,” Christian answered.

*

No survival epic can match the astonishing feat of our last novel, the oldest entry on the Ventura County Hit Parade of Fiction.

The novel did for California what “Gone with the Wind” did for the Old South. D.W. Griffith filmed a movie version with silent film star Mary Pickford. A California town named itself after the book. In another town, the novel inspired a spring pageant that has been a tradition for 70 years. And, 109 years after it was first published, it is still selling.

The novel is “Ramona.”

Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 romance is everything an epic should be. It is sweeping--dealing with Southern California in the declining days of the dons, as the bad-guy Americans are muscling their way onto Indian lands and driving out the Mexicans.

It is controversial--dealing with racial discrimination between the Anglos and Mexicans and Indians.

And, of course, it is a love story--the tale of the beautiful (naturally) Ramona, the daughter of a Mexican and Indian woman, and her noble, star-crossed husband, a Temecula Indian.

The pageant takes place in Hemet, and the town of Ramona is in San Diego County, where the climax of the novel occurs.

But its original setting is the Senora Moreno’s rancho in the Santa Clara River valley.

“The Senora Moreno’s house was one of the best specimens to be found in California of the representative house of the half barbaric, half elegant, wholly generous and free-handed life led there by Mexican men and women of degree in the early part of this century . . . .” Jackson wrote.

The house was based on the real Camulos Ranch near Piru, which is still a working ranch, and where, according to Charles Johnson, librarian of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, Jackson visited one afternoon. The novel, Johnson said, captured the imaginations of Americans by portraying a “fantastical history.”

“It was at the time when the days of the dons were in rapid decline,” said Johnson. “Anglos were anxious to recreate the Disney-fied version of those days.”

“Ramona,” he said, was a “fantasy history. It is what the Anglos wanted to believe those days had been like.”

*

But then, making a good fantasy is what fiction is all about, right?

Don’t ask us, though. We’re too engrossed in this latest thriller set in Ventura County. Would you mind bringing us another beer milkshake?

Between the Lines

To Charles Johnson, librarian at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, the question seemed a simple one: What novels have used Ventura County as a setting? “What we thought would be a straightforward account wasn’t,” Johnson said. “No one has done it before.”

Here are some of the books, both famous and forgotten that Johnson and his researchers came up with. The list includes publication dates when known:

Badger Claws of Ojai, by Matt Boardman, 1971

Bursting of a Boom, by F.R. Sanford, 1889

Children of the Lighthouse, N.A. Smith, 1924

The Charmstone, by Eleanor Hoffman

Chumash Indians: A Story of Adventure, by E.P. Brown

Crimson Trail of Joaquin Murieta, by Ernest Klette

Gringo Gold: A Story of Joaquin Murieta, by Dane Coolidge

The Impact Zone, by Ray Maloney, 1986

Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, 1960

J is for Justice, by Sue Grafton, 1993

Mitigating Circumstances, by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg, 1993

Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson, 1884

Sleep in the Sun, by Alan B. Moody, 1945

The Splendid Idle Forties, by Gertrude Atherton, 1902

Ventura, by Max Eastman

The Voyage of the Frog, by Gary Paulsen, 1989

Water Under the Dam, by Clarene Rowley VanSant, 1955


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