The Blossom Festival
This novel came from the family stories that I heard when I was young. My mother’s family was from Saratoga, California, the home of The Blossom Festival. During the years she was growing up, the Santa Clara Valley was home to one of the richest fruit growing regions in the world. In the springtime, millions of fruit trees blossomed across the valley, and visitors came from around the state to see the sights and enjoy the festivities.
My grandmother lived on Oak Street in Saratoga, and I visited there many times when I was growing up. By then, in the fifties and sixties, the orchards were being replaced at a rapid pace by subdivisions, and the Santa Clara Valley, once known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, was on the way to becoming Silicon Valley. I heard my mother and my aunts talk about cutting apricots or picking prunes every year to earn money for school clothes, but those days seemed already in the distant past. The only time I ever worked in an orchard was once picking walnuts at my uncle’s walnut ranch near Gilroy. I don’t think I filled very many boxes.
My grandmother had passed away by the time I thought about writing a novel set during the times of the great orchards, but I found that a lot of people in Saratoga still remembered her and my grandfather, and that opened some doors for me. My grandfather, Bert Bertelsen, was the village blacksmith in Saratoga, and everyone in town would have had reason to visit the blacksmith’s shop in those days.
Many people were generous, and were willing to share their time and their stories with me. Willys Peck, especially, was an invaluable source for stories about Old Saratoga, and Betsy McClendon, who had danced at the Blossom Festival, happily spent an afternoon with me and two other dancers, Sheila Stanfield Heid and Peggy Stanfield Stuart, reminiscing about their dance teachers.
It would have been easy to write a nostalgic book about those times. When I began doing research, I think I fell under the spell of all those fruit trees. I made it a point to go to the orchards around Yuba City to see a prune orchard in full bloom. And it was easy to fall into imagining living in a place that promised goodness and beauty, a Jeffersonian vision of yeoman farmers actually realized. Unlike the Great Central Valley, the Santa Clara Valley was a valley of small stakeholders. Because it was a region of tree and vine growers, it was actually possible to “climb the farm ladder.” Cases were described of a man saving his sufficient earnings as a laborer in one year to buy a team of horses, sharecropping the next year, and achieving land ownership the next. In the mid-1880s, more than half the farms were in tracts of 400 acres or more, but by 1910, the average size of an improved farm was 50 acres. Another nickname of the Santa Clara Valley then, in addition to “The Valley of Heart’s Delight” was “The Poor Man’s Paradise.”
As a novelist, The Blossom Festival, the celebration that seemed to epitomize all that was good about the Santa Clara, especially drew me in. It seemed that I could use that celebration as a way to bring together all that I might want to say. And it would have been very possible to write an elegy for a lost pastoral space.
What shocked me out of my own elegiac mode was reading a speech – printed verbatim in the local newspaper, The Saratoga Star – that James Duval Phelan gave at the 1920 Blossom Festival.
A few words about James Duval Phelan. He typified the successful Californian of his era. He was the son of a 49’er who also founded the First National Bank of San Francisco. He was a progressive, who served as the reform Mayor of San Francisco from 1898 – 1902, he was a U.S. Senator, a patron of the Arts, and he was very active in the reconstruction of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of 1906.
He was also instrumental in various anti-immigration movements of the early twentieth century, especially anti-Japanese movements. He argued for the Chinese Exclusion Act, made “permanent” in 1902, to be extended to the Japanese. He favored the 1913 Alien Land Act, barring land ownership from those “ineligible for citizenship,” and the Immigration Act of 1924, barring immigration to those “ineligible for citizenship” – words which referenced the Japanese. In all this, James Duval Phelan was in the mainstream in California.
At the Blossom Festival of 1920, as he was running for re-election, James Duval Phelan made a virulently anti-Asian speech. At the very center of the event that celebrated the essence of pastoral life were heard phrases such as these:
We must protect our soil with a jealous hand against the silent invasion which is going on within our very gates. I speak of the alien occupation, insidious and stealthy – low wages which make competition well nigh useless, and an uncanny thrift which permits of such low wages … Shall we not meet the stress of the period and preserve the race?
The headline read: “Insidious Invasion” one of the things the nation must guard against now that the war is over – Valley brilliantly in bloom for annual fete.
A nostalgic book about the Santa Clara Valley would have been of a Paradise Lost, a pastoral space complete and whole and wholly meaningful. What I hope I wrote finally is a book about a valley that is riven by competing desires and contending communities, that contains within it the seeds of its own change while also being part of the larger history of the state and the nation.
My original impulse in writing the book was to find the connection between the world of my grandparents and the very different suburban world in which I grew up. I hope readers will also be able to imagine themselves in this place more deeply, and perhaps feel connected in a way that they did not before.
The Blossom Festival is an old American story made new. Coates knows the soil of Santa Clara Valley, he knows its history, and his tale shines a haunting light on the world we inhabit now.—James D. Houston
Lawrence Coates' The Blossom Festival is a poignant, between-World-Wars mapping of a more Edenic Santa Clara Valley in northern California when the mechanistic intrusions in the garden still whistled and honked of promise and progress, sang of youth and love and spring, harvest of family and festival.
—Robert F. Gish
The judges were especially struck by The Blossom Festival's almost Hardyesque sense of fateful change, embodied in a seemingly permanent way of life that is in fact perishing ... the author has undertaken a large subject and handled it with the most unassuming skill and power.—Judges’ Citation for the Western States Book Award
An “extraordinary first novel.”
—Contra Costa Times