When visiting modern day Los Angeles, it is hard to imagine a time when the coast and valley were not cluttered with buildings and heavy traffic. Water diversion projects have made this large city possible, ironically, adjacent to earth’s largest ocean. There was a time, however, when California was undeveloped and water was indeed everywhere. Snow melt and spring water flowed easily from the mountains, through the valley and spread finger-like into coastal marshes before reaching the great ocean.
California was known as “Alta California” – a place where Native American tribes lived peacefully along the coastal plain for a thousand years. Then along came the Spanish explorers whose missions dotted the landscape, a day’s ride apart, from San Diego to San Francisco, forming enormous vegetable farms, vineyards and ranching operations. The missions’ purpose was to save Native American souls while forcing the natives at gun-point to provide labor for the farms. Meanwhile, enterprising merchants saw opportunity in shipping and land development, forming the first pueblos.
This transitional period in California’s history, approximately 1835-1845, is the setting for Barbara Crane’s novel, When Water was Everywhere. Like the streams traveling down the mountains to the fertile valley below, Ms. Crane deftly weaves together the lives of several people who represent the forces of change.
Centered loosely on the real life of John Temple, Don Rodrigo Tilman was a seafarer from Massachusetts who arrived in Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1828, opened a dry goods store, and expanded his business interests over the years. To gain favor with the local government, he blended into local society by learning to speak perfect Spanish, becoming a Mexican citizen, marrying a Spanish woman and converting to Catholicism. At this time, the Mexican government was selling off property which was, until that time, managed by the missions, enabling Don Rodrigo to purchase a large ranch he called Rancho de los Rios – or Ranch of the Rivers. Don Rodrigo believed that California was destined to become part of the United States, so it was important to gain political favor with U.S. trade liaisons, lest his land deeds not be recognized by the prospective new government. It was a matter of delicate balance to support the Mexican government while protecting himself within the vortex of change.
Ms. Crane devised some wonderful characters who blend texture and heart to the story. Some caught in the transition won outright; some lost, and some found a way to blend into the fabric of the community, creating a whole new society from past remnants. Don Rodrigo was clearly the economic winner. Others won in more subtle ways. The awkward cowboy, Henry Scott, won his emotional independence and sense of self-worth because Don Rodrigo gave him an opportunity to learn the skills needed to thrive in this new place. “Big-Headed Girl”, a member of the Tongva tribe, lost her whole family and found a way to keep her children safe. Koovahcho, born a Tongva, lost his connection to his tribe, but found a meaningful life in the pueblo. The gifted vaquero, Felipe, earned his promotion by learning to read and do “sums”. Padre Jose, who also suffered great losses early in life, carried immense guilt as a result. Only the passion flower soothed him. He won the greatest gift of all.
These people resonate: like viewing a great painting, the vision stays with the observer for a long time after experiencing the last page. The reader is drawn into this time with enough historical detail to fasten it firmly to reality and make it historically interesting, but with characterizations that are fully formed, not representational figures. The reader “feels” the life of each person and wants to continue to know them even after the novel ends. That’s powerful writing, Barbara Crane.
If there is a sequel, read it. You’ll be glad you made the journey.