QUESTIONS FOR BOOK GROUPS
If you are meeting as a group to discuss Camp Olvido, the following questions can give you ways to start the conversation. They may also lead you to ways of developing your ideas about the book and about its broader themes. But they shouldn’t be seen as limiting discussion. Every reader is an individual, and will bring his or her own personal history to the reading of the book.
- The picker’s camp, Camp Olvido, has a name that means “forgotten.” In what ways are those who live and work there forgotten people? The author has stated in an interview that the book was set during the Depression but before the Dust Bowl devastated the midsection of the country, and so before the inmigration of workers from Oklahoma and other states. Hence, the workers in the fields at that time were not white Americans, as depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, but mainly Latinos. What would this novella add for those whose only knowledge of California during the thirties comes from Steinbeck’s work?
- Discuss the past of the main character, Esteban. We discover that he first came north with his family to escape the wars in Mexico. He then escaped a life of labor laying railroad tracks by hiring on with a traveling vendor. After a time of being abused by the vendor, he escaped once more through an act of violence. How did his past lead him to become the person we see at the beginning of the book? Given that the knowledge of his past is not revealed until well into the book, does that knowledge change how you view Esteban – is it more possible to sympathize with him?
- When Esteban initially gives a bit of cash to the suffering family, it is described as “a calculated gift, an offering to buy the camp’s goodwill on his next visit.” Discuss Esteban’s motivations throughout the story. Why does he decide to take Ysidro to see Joe Walker? Why does he leave jail with Diamond and then follow Diamond’s directions? Diamond taunts Esteban and says “a man like you doesn’t want justice.” Is Diamond correct? What would justice look like for Esteban, given that he is complicit in a system of exploitation even before the attack on Aaron Glover?
- One reviewer described an early scene from the book as “a tableau [of] a migrant Madonna and Child, documented in black and white by Dorothea Lange.” This implies a certain archetypical element in the story – the family with the sick child is representative of all families. Yet Ysidro, the father of Manuel, is maddened by the sickness of his child, and a far cry from the silent and patient Joseph of the gospel story. Why does Ysidro attack Aaron Glover? What does it imply that Ysidro sees Aaron as “the deceiver, the adversary?” Ysidro falls into despair, even before he leaves the jail, and says that he will never see Helena or Manuel again. Why does this despair move Esteban to contradict Ysidro and tell him “You know none of this?”
- Although Esteban drives his car tires over Ysidro’s fallen body, it’s not certain that Esteban is the actual cause of Ysidro’s death. How does it change your understanding of the book if Esteban is not actually culpable? Of what is he actually guilty?
- When Esteban returns to Camp Olvido, he is greeted as a good man, a caring man, because the camp has heard of his one act of kindness – making sure that Ysidro ate while in jail. Discuss the gap between the camp’s understanding of events and Esteban’s knowledge of what truly happened. Why does Esteban react as he does, encouraging a spontaneous celebration by pouring free drinks for all and praising Ysidro? What does it imply when the celebration continues long after the center of it, Helena and Manuel, have left?
- Ysidro’s last words were “There is no hope to be had. Not in Esteban, not in anyone.” Esteban remembers this, yet lies about it. What does he say? How do the people gathered, especially Helena, receive his words? In what way does it make a difference that the final blessing he conveys is a falsehood?
- The Del Río brothers, Policarpo and Nivardo, appear early in the novella as admirers of Esteban, envious of the life he leads. Partway through the story, they reveal that one of them has gotten a woman pregnant, though neither of them wants to take responsibility. And at the end of the story, they scheme to murder Esteban and take over his role as contrabandista to all the camps. What does Esteban mean when he tells them, after they fail, that they have received “the greatest favor of [their] lives?” What is the relationship between his statement and the brothers’ earlier refusal of responsibility?
- At the end of the novella, Esteban initially wants to leave without taking Helena and Manuel, and he says “I’m better alone.” The old man replies “No one is alone.” Discuss the ways of looking at the world implicit in those two statements, thinking back on what Diamond said about being alone while in the car with Esteban and Ysidro. Why does Esteban finally change his mind and take Helena and Manuel with him? Does the old man convince Esteban or is it yet another act of bad faith on his part?
- What feeling were you left with at the end of the book? They are heading toward Milagro Park, though it’s unclear if they will arrive safely. What role does Milagro Park play in the story? What does its name imply? Does Esteban gain a measure of redemption by taking Helena and Manuel with him?
- Camp Olvido is a novella and was published as part of a distinguished series of novellas from Miami University Press. Two well-known contemporary writers, Richard Ford and Ian McEwan, have very different views of the novella. Ford found novellas impossible to define, and he settled on the term “Long Story” in his introduction to a recent anthology. McEwan, in contrast, called the novella “the most perfect form of prose fiction” in an essay in The New Yorker, and he praised the way it requires focus on the unity of the work while also allowing readers to “inhabit a world.” How well does Camp Olvido fit McEwan’s definition? How much is there a kind of unity in the work? How well does it create a world? Without being presumptuous, a list of well-known masterpieces of the form would include The Metamorphosis, The Turn of the Screw, Heart of Darkness, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and The Dead.
[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
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
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