Miami University Press ($15)
by Richard Henry
A “child stalked by death” and an incidental act of kindness in a world without it drives the tragedy in Lawrence Coates's Camp Olvido. The time is the early 1930s, the place California's Central Valley work camps. Migrant workers and their families, mid-level bullies, and bosses upon bosses all populate the novella, but the wild card is Estaban, the liquor-man, who travels the camps with a barrel full of illegal brandy and unlabeled bottles of wine.
Estaban commits the initial transgression as he shuts down his camp visit for the night. Against all of his instincts, he steps away from his car, from his brandy and wine, to the stable where a sick boy is being cared for. He sees the seated mother cradling the child, with the child's father standing just behind. The tableau might be a migrant Madonna and Child, documented in black and white by Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, or any of the hundreds of WPA photographers working in the latter half of the 1930s. One can imagine Coates being employed by the WPA's Federal Writer's Project to record, without judgment, the series of tragedies.
Estaban's laying of a five-dollar bill at their feet leads to an escalating series of transgressions. The act is small, and the gift is "calculated . . . an offering to buy the camp's good will on his next visit." Nor is there much compassion when Estaban later agrees to take the child's father to one of the bosses so he may seek permission to leave with his family and find medical help for his son. He does so because, having just been emasculated by the novella's truly malevolent bully, "he would gladly see someone else's life embittered." The lack of redemption undermines any Christian allegory; any change in status in Camp Olvido is achieved only by violence. Still, Coates manages to offer us a touch of sympathy.
From one perspective, the strength of this novella is also its biggest weakness: it is excellently constructed. Every small encounter pays off; everything moves along as though pre-ordained. With its well-informed and deep explication of the economic system through the actions of the main character, invocations of John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos are inevitable. But lost is the humanity. For this aspect, it would be profitable (sic) to read the novella against, for example, José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho, Tomàs Rivera's And the Earth Did Devour Him, or Elva Treviño Hart's Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child.
Camp Olvido won Miami University Press’s 2015 novella prize, and joins four other novels by Lawrence Coates that are set in California: The Goodbye House, The Garden of the World, The Master of Monterey, and The Blossom Festival.