Based on the reminiscences of Varble’s late husband, this young-adult novella describes a 6-year-old boy’s adventures in Simi Valley in the summer of 1934.
Recounting the adventures of Johnny, son of a tenant farmer during the Great Depression, the novella is as much a portrait of Simi Valley between the world wars as it is a portrayal of a boy’s awakening to an adult world. Rich in vivid historical detail—e.g., Johnny is born on March 11, 1928, the day before Francis Mullholland’s Saint Francis Dam fails, drowning hundreds in what remains one of the state’s greatest losses of life—the novella is also a deft sketch of a rural American life that has largely disappeared. Executed with a historian’s eye, Varble draws on research and recollection to vividly evoke Johnny’s family and valley life, including a cavalcade of colorful local figures, from the voluptuous Aunt Belle, to an Okie family fleeing the “black blizzards” of the Dust Bowl (storms which tripled in frequency from 14 in 1932 to 52 in 1934), to Andy, Johnny’s father’s friend who returns from San Quentin after serving time for the murder of his wife. While the characterizations can be overly simple, the details of time and place are often riveting: the harvesting of barley, the lighting of a wood stove, California “car culture” before licenses were commonplace, the hunting of a mountain lion. In prose as simple as a Hemingway story, the novella offers young readers a glimpse of an almost unimaginably unplugged world. Brief chapters keep the book fleet-footed even as they credibly reveal crucial steps to maturity—from curiosity to desire, from loss to altruism. The reader’s awareness of fascism’s rise in Europe—and Johnny’s likely future as a soldier—lends gravity to a tale that might otherwise seem a nostalgic look back at simpler times.
Dramatic skill and rich historical details make for a successful YA book, especially for readers with a particular interest in California.