The Blossom Festival


If you are meeting as a group to discuss The Blossom Festival, 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 the broader themes the book brings up.  But they shouldn’t be seen as limiting discussion.  Every reader is an individual, and will bring his or her own personal history and family background to the reading of the book.  It is hoped that every reader finds something unique and valuable in The Blossom Festival

  1. The relationship of people to the land is a major theme of The Blossom Festival.  It is evoked in the very first paragraph, and it influences the life of every character in the book.  How do the various characters conceive of their relationship to the Santa Clara Valley?
  2. The story of Harold Madison is central to Part One of The Blossom Festival.  Harold’s feelings for Betsy seem sincere at the beginning, and don’t begin to change until after he moves into the bunkhouse with the full-time men.  How might this male-dominated society have affected him?
  3. Harold is at times called an ‘apprentice of the orchard.’  When he leaves, a chain of wisdom and practical knowledge is broken.  What does it imply for the future of the valley that he doesn’t fulfill Shorty’s ambitions for him?
  4. Harold learns of Betsy’s pregnancy near the same time he wins a large sum of money.  How does his knowledge of his own father’s betrayal influence his own actions?  When Harold departs from the valley, we only hear of him through letters that show him ever further west.  How might this relate to his father’s restless energy in the chapter “Southland?”
  5. Betsy faces a dilemma in Part Two over how much she should allow Steen to act like a father toward Peter.  What are the pros and cons of the choice she makes?  Does she regret it?  How does her relationship to her own father influence her choice and her response to Steen’s actions?
  6. Peter returns to the Santa Clara Valley filled with resentment.  How justified is his resentment?  Should it be directed toward his mother, Betsy?  What actions does he take to demonstrate those feelings?  How do the consequences of his actions go contrary to his expectations?
  7. Lone Hill plays a large role in both Part One and Part Two of The Blossom Festival.  It is the place where Betsy and Harold first find love for each other, and it is later the center of a development scheme.  How does Lone Hill come to stand for broader trends in the Santa Clara Valley?
  8. Steen Denisen is ambitious and successful in his business dealings, in many ways fulfilling the ambitions he held before he emigrated.  In some ways, he is responsible for the development of Lone Hill.  Yet can his actions be called blameworthy?  Is he at fault in pursuing his business interests, or is he simply acting as any good business owner would?
  9. There are several voices that comment on the events of the valley as they unfold:  Shorty, Karin Madison, Bill Finney, and Reverend Walters.  What light do these voices throw on the actions of the other characters?
  10. Fumiko Yamamoto faces a common dilemma for children of immigrants:  the more she becomes part of mainstream culture, the less she feels a part of her parents’ culture.  How does her friendship help her face this dilemma?  How does race play a role in the possibilities open to her?  Her mother, in particular, seems determined to ensure that she doesn’t become too ‘American.’  What conflicts does this lead to?
  11. While her parents are selling orchard land, Olivia Roberts is practicing to dance in the annual Blossom Festival pageant.  What is implied by this contradiction?
  12. Albin Roberts has a special relationship to the natural world, especially the world of birds.  How would you describe this relationship?  How is it fostered by Diana Russell?  How would you compare his relationship with the natural world to that of his mother, who paints still lifes?
  13. The annual Blossom Festival was a celebration of springtime and the return of life to the fruit trees that formed the heart of the Santa Clara Valley’s economy.  However, during the 1939 Blossom Festival, various events occur that call into question the idealization of life in the valley.  How does the ideal represented by The Blossom Festival come into conflict with reality?  The author has said that the speech given by Congressman Ironsides in the novel was based on an actual speech given by Senator James D. Phelan at an earlier Blossom Festival.  What issues for the characters are brought up by his speech?
  14. The World’s Fair of 1939 took place at a time when war had already broken out in Asia and Europe.  How does the looming war affect the four young people as they visit Treasure Island?  What special pressure does it put on Fumiko when they visit the Japanese pavilion?
  15. In an interview, the author has said “I don’t think anyone can blame the individual ranchers.  They were working hard, barely breaking even, and the next generation often didn’t want to take over.  And they had a chance, by selling, to have enough money for the rest of their lives.  But the twist on this is that we have a series of rational decisions made by individuals, and yet we end up with an irrational result – some of the richest agricultural land in the world paved over.  What is it in our human impulses that would lead us to such an irrational end?  That’s the mystery.”  As a whole, how does the book explore the ‘mystery’ the author evokes?

If you would like some further background on the book, you may enjoy the short promotional film entitled The Valley of Heart’s Delight.

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