At a Woodlake High School Foundation Dinner I attended recently, Bob Burke, the 2011 San Joaquin Valley Council for the Social Studies High School Teacher of the Year, told me he had just published his first book, Through the Redwood Curtain.
The main character, Steve, a long-haired student at the College of the Redwoods, transversed between his home, where he lived in a tiny trailer in an ultra-conservative, poverty-ridden McKinleyville trailer park with his brother and his brother’s wife, to his place of school and employment in Eureka, 13 miles away. On the way driving south on Highway 101 in his rundown Volkswagen van Steve passed through the now progressive town of Arcata, home of Humboldt State University, just over five miles away from his home. The two towns couldn’t have been further apart politically. When folks for the two towns met and talked politics, it was like metal on pavement, driving on the rims.
Through Steve’s naive eyes, the reader sees the battle lines being sketched between two ideologies, environmentally conscious students, and lumberjacks and fishermen barely scratching out a living as they destroyed some of the most pristine forests in the United States. The destitution of the residents contrasted with the privilege and unappreciated wealth of the majority of the Humboldt State students from Southern California created a dramatic backdrop of political sparks that fueled this book’s plot from beginning to end.
The drama didn’t end with politics, however. Steve had his own internal combustion engine when it came to the love of his life, Cheryl, and their lonely times of separation, the abundance of drugs, family differences, friendships, and betrayals. In addition, the death of Steve’s mother, the lack of support from his drunken father colored his emotions, and his own desperate financial situation added to the intense conflict of forces within the story.
Finally, the story wouldn’t have been complete without Steve’s $1.65 an hour job at Coastal Gardens Nursery in Eureka. Steve worked with an assortment of characters, most of whom were paroles, students, or local tooth-free young women looking for good men – in all the wrong places. Steve seemed to innocently bound through his mixed up world always seeing roses through his fog colored spectacles.
All of the dramatic facets and interludes of Steve’s life seem inextricably intertwined into the life of his rusty, fussy old VW van. Could it be that the opposing forces in Steve’s life wouldn’t begin to come together as long as he had the troublesome VW? Or would his troubles only deepen if the old van ever died? To find that answer you will have to read the book.
Common Core Standards
While this is a work of fiction, I think most high school teachers could use this with their students studying modern U.S. history, and would find Through the Redwood Curtain more than just a fun read. Of course they could analyze the characters and setting, both of which are part of the new standards. One of the important aspects of being a historian is to know the author, and understand the lens through which the book is written. Robert Burke graduated from Humboldt State in the 1970s, so is a primary source when it comes to the issues found in the book. So did Bob have an agenda when writing the book? Did he see like as a wealthy college student, or did he, because of his own lack of funds, identify more with the conservatives who also had financial troubles bigger than the Redwoods? How would the book have been different if written from the perspective of the owner of Coastal Gardens Nursery? These are topics with which students have to grapple in their Common Core classrooms. In my opinion this story would be an excellent one for examining perspective.
If you know Northwest California, and love the complexity of the simple life found there, you will love this book. Read it and pass it on to a friend or two that went to Humboldt State in the 1970s. They probably knew Steve – even though he is fictitious. I felt like knew him – back when.