Camp Olvido


The Great Central Valley of California has long been a place of vast landholdings and migrant labor, beginning as far back as the nineteenth century.  This is the region that Carey McWilliams wrote about in Factories in the Field and that Paul Taylor depicted in On the Ground in the Thirties.  It’s the region where the photographer Dorothea Lange worked, and where much of John Steinbeck’s great novel The Grapes of Wrath takes place.

The idea for this novella grew from two sources.  First, it grew from the time some years ago when I worked as a volunteer teaching English to recent immigrants in Watsonville, California.  Around that same time, I traveled along the U.S. – Mexican border, interviewing Border Patrol agents, a Coyote, and those seeking to cross into the United States.  I know I would not have been able to write this novella without the stories I heard while teaching and freelancing, and I want to acknowledge all those who spoke to me during those times with such candor and generosity.  If you’re interested in reading the article I wrote for The Chicago Tribune from those travels, it’s available here.

Read my border article, “Crossover Dreams.”

Second, the story grew from some of the reading I’d done while writing The Garden of the World.  Within that novel was the story of a Latino family from Southern California that spent every summer on the road picking fruit as it came into season.  I thought at the time that there was another story I wanted to write from that material.  I’d also grown more aware of the role of the Central Valley in the life of California, and I wanted to include that in my work.  Even today, the Central Valley is a region of large landholdings, many of them owned by investors who live far from the region, and it has pockets of dire poverty.  For those interested, I recommend looking at the work of photographer Matt Black, who provided the cover photo for the book. 

The novella I wrote is set in the 1930s, in the years before the Dust Bowl brought waves of people from the mid-section of the country.  It’s only one story, from a region that has many stories to tell.  

Camp Olvido is everything a novella should be—intense as it is resonant, propulsive as it is deep—but, even more than a shining example of the form, it is simply a great story. I haven’t read anything as powerful about pickers and California since I read John Steinbeck. Lawrence Coates writes with every bit as much tenderness and compassion, but this moving novella—full of characters I won’t forget and images I can’t—is cut with a clear-eyed, brutal honesty that gives it a hard-won wisdom and beauty all its own. —Josh Weil

Author of The New Valley: Novellas

[A] stunning exploration of one man's bold actions and their consequences. Gorgeously written, the novella shows the dark side of California's prosperity, with violence and, unexpectedly, elements of the divine. A superb addition to a distinguished series.

—Cary Holladay

Author of A Fight in the Doctor's Office and Horse People: Stories

I have rarely read a novella so rich, with the moral complexities of Melville’s Billy Budd and the social and visual acuity of a film like Buñuel’s Los olvidados . . . Read Camp Olvido, a masterful work of fiction, as provocative as it is jaw-dropping in its beauty.

—Wendell Mayo

Author of The Cucumber King of Kédainiai

In Camp Olvido, Lawrence Coates paints a sensual and humane picture of life and death in a depression-era work camp peopled by Latino fieldworkers . . . showing not only the sorrow of endemic poverty and powerlessness but the love and good humor of a community that can endure.

—Bonnie Jo Campbell

Author of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters and Once Upon a River