June 23, 2007

The Valley of the Moon, Jack London

The scenes in this are good, as one expects from Jack London, but the novel as a whole hangs together only by heroic doses of exceptionalism. On the other hand, it so perfectly figures the Californian ruburban ideal that the second half could nearly be reprinted in Sunset every year.

The first half is a sort-of proletariat drama in lower-class Oakland (1900s or thereabouts). It's more pro-tagonist than pro-labor; the best-looking young things in town meet, fall in love, marry, see their slightly more low-tone friends go to the bad, and get out of town in the wake of pitched strike and riot: "Capital everywhere seemed to have selected this city for the battle with organized labor." At this point Saxon (the heroine) and Billy are labor; he's a teamster.

They decide the city is corrupt and corrupting, and leave for a dream of 'the valley of the moon' with all of California's agricultural and scenic advantages in one place, not far from a railroad. The wandering part of the novel is a pleasant fantasy of full public trout-streams and high-class, book-learned small-holders with a lot of time to explain truck-farm profits to the vagabonds.

The middle of the book is mildly interesting for set-pieces discussing clever agricultural tricks of 'the immigrants'; grafting in Portuguese fruit orchards, drying by Chinese fruit-shippers, all so much more profitable than the lazier methods of the Anglos that the Anglos are getting bought out of the land. "Not an inch wasted. Where we get one thin crop, they get four fat crops." The protagonists are weirdly sure that this is all kind of tacky, that they as 'real' Americans deserve forty acres rather than four (acres 'free from the government', too).

Carmel is a valuable visit because they 'learn how to play': "A poet named Mark Hall had offered them the free use of a "shack," and it turned out to be a three-roomed house comfortably furnished for housekeeping. ... They paid no rent." Hall inherited money and can afford to preach democracy and fixing the system -- to which, Saxon:

If we all get into politics and work hard for something better, maybe we'll get it after a thousand years or so. But I want it now. I can't wait; I want it now. ... What we want is a valley of the moon, with not too much work, and all the fun we want.

They are advised to lease a farm, work the heart out of it, and make off with the profits -- this is explicitly described as the tactic of "the land-hungry Anglo-Saxons... It was his kind that destroyed New England. Back there, great sections are relapsing to wilderness." But they also don't want to do anything so immoral.

They adopt a camper-wagon so that she can travel with an adequate wardrobe.

There is much talk of how the soil ought to be protected and replenished, but no detail on how that should be done.

Finally they happen onto perfect land in Sonoma -- an abandoned farm, with nice neighbors and reliable water, near a railroad and a hotel boom. Inexplicably, it's affordable. There's a brief dig at the original French settler, whose land-love is "a disease", and some extremely handy setting-up advice from an independent farmer who takes quite a lot of time off her own farm to help them set up; and finally our protagonists are happy because they're going to be capitalists:

You must use your head. Let others do the work. You must understand that thoroughly. The wages of superintendence are always larger than the wages of the laborers.

Nor is this a strictly rural idyll:

As a farming investment, using old-fashioned methods, it was not worth it. As a business investment, yes; for the virtues of the valley were on the eve of being discovered by the outside world, and no better location for a summer home could be found. ... And he knew [the seller] would allow time on most of the amount.

So, yes, if land in Sonoma falls into your lap on easy terms, you can feel very good about your prospects for catering to the upper classes and to land speculation, and it might even be easy. Truly, a prototype of the Californian dream to this day.

Find in a Library: The Valley of the Moon

Project Gutenberg etext #1449

So wrote clew in Fiction (20th c.).
And thus wrote others:
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