Chelsea Bieker distills the fire and fury of the parched Central Valley
For those living near California’s metropolitan poles of Los Angeles and San Francisco, a road trip through the state’s Central Valley reveals an unfamiliar world.
Amid sprawling orchards and windswept pastureland, roadside billboards issue water demands to farmers. Mile after seemingly desolate mile, freeway exits to small towns like Kettleman City, Lost Hills and Buttonwillow point toward a rural way of life beyond rest stop clusters of gas stations and fast food options. Who survives in such a parched landscape? What must their lives be like?
“If you drive even a little bit outside of Fresno you know that’s where the farmers have their crops, and that’s where the food is coming from,” says writer Chelsea Bieker. “I always felt curious about those spaces.” Bieker’s debut novel, “Godshot,” offers a heightened but still empathetic portrait of those who live and work in her fictional Central Valley town, Peaches.
Depicting the ravages of economic disaster and the cruelty desperate people will accept in return for promises of a better life, “Godshot” is about patriarchy, extremist religion and their result, misogyny and sexual violence. And yet, despite being distressing at times, the book leaves room for light and a twisted sort of humor — even as Peaches spirals into darkness.
Peaches amplifies elements taken directly from Bieker’s turbulent upbringing. “My grandfather lived in Kerman, and after he had sold the vineyard ... he [still] felt really tied to the outcome of the raisins and the grapes,” Bieker explains. “We would drive by and sometimes he would climb over the fence, take a bunch of grapes and then jump back in the car, and we’d speed away. He just never lost his connection to it.”
There’s a little of “The Grapes of Wrath” in “Godshot,” but much more too. It’s primarily the story of 14-year-old narrator Lacey May, who, in addition to enduring poverty, ecological collapse and the harrowing influence of the town’s spiritual leader, Pastor Vern, must face adulthood without the mother who abandoned her. Chronicling Lacey’s consuming feelings of “motherloss” was key for Bieker, whose own mother left her at age 9 in the care of her born-again Christian grandparents.
“Most parents die in literature,” says Bieker, 33, who now has two children of her own and lives in Portland, Ore. “There is this clean ending to their life, and while it’s devastating, the child isn’t left to imagine what the parent is doing. The way that Lacey’s mother leaves her opens the door to this strange grief where it is like a death, but it’s not a death.” A kind of not-quite-magical thinking fills in the gap, the eternal hope of return that only passes in adulthood.
“The older I’ve gotten, the more my view of my mother shifts, and I have more compassion for her,” says Bieker, whose contact with her mother is mostly over the phone. “I have a different view of her than I did maybe at 18 when I was just full of hot anger and confusion, and everything seemed more black and white.”
Though Bieker took quickly to the structure and safety of her grandparents’ religion, she eventually found it difficult to square her political views with the church.
“The church [in the book] really takes some of my issues with the more traditional churches to an extreme,” she says. “There’s a lot of groupthink, there’s a lot of programming that’s really harmful to the women of the church — and the men.”
Back in Peaches, as Pastor Vern’s unholy plans to summon rain take shape, Lacey grows to question her faith with the assistance of the Diviners, the town’s female-run phone-sex operation, which becomes a haven for Lacey as her situation grows more desperate.
“It does serve as this portal in the book for transformation,” Bieker says. While a 14-year-old turning to sex work is just one of many unsettling details in “Godshot,” Bieker depicts the Diviners as a society out of reach of the patriarchal, all-consuming control of the church. Lacey enters the clan ignorant of her own body, and while the Diviners help set her on a path of discovery, so does a stash of bodice-ripping novels her mother left behind. Bieker took that from her life too: She grew up reading with a grandmother whose romance collection lined the walls.
“No one was talking about sex to me at all — not at school, not at home, not at the church,” Bieker says. The novels “blew my mind because I was like, ‘Oh, there’s words for body parts. There’s language for the way that people are connecting or feeling.’ … It’s really cheesy at times but there is something there that was so appealing, because I just wasn’t getting that anywhere else. It felt pretty magical.”
The steady collapse of Peaches and its church resembles a descent into hell itself. With water scarce, parishioners are instead baptized in tubs of warm soda. Lacey’s grandmother Cherry finds comfort in a collection of taxidermied rodents, and her faith grows increasingly grotesque as she’s driven to shave her head clean before church. Even Pastor Vern’s glitter-dusted sermons exude a threadbare gaudiness that borders on the surreal.
“The setting of the book is so bleak, everything is beige. And maybe it’s subconscious, but these people are drowning in dirt,” Bieker says. “They want to be shiny and they want something beautiful, and I think that intention is universal and not necessarily a bad thing, but it comes out in these sort of funny dollar disco suits and the sequined capes.”
While writing her larger-than-life novel, Bieker was forced by real events to ground “Godshot” in harsh reality. She had returned to Fresno to write, and during revisions, the 2018 fires that consumed the town of Paradise shrouded the town in an apocalyptic haze. They also cast a shadow over her fictional town of Peaches. “Does dirt burn?” Lacey asks at one point, as she considers whether such a disaster will come for her town too.
“It was impossible to ignore,” Bieker says. “I was also observing how people there had a different response; it really varied. Some people were not concerned at all, kids were still playing outside. It was this funny thing, and I was really fascinated and disturbed by the black skies and feeling really trapped.”
With each day bringing more ominous signs on the horizon as many of us, isolated or alone, also choose to see what we like, it’s easy to relate.
Barton is a former staff writer for The Times.
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