While awaiting publications of these novels, you might look, as I have lately, into two long-forgotten Orange County novels that deserve revival, I refer to "Cress Delahanty" and "South of the Angels," both by Jessamyn West.
In "Cress Delahanty," West not only wrote what must be one of a very small number of novels set on an orange ranch but also created in the Delahanty family one of the most touching, amusing, altogether lovable families in American literature.
The Fullerton high school girl for whom the novel is named is as funny and as preposterously adolescent as Bill Baxter in Booth Tarkington's "Seventeen," and as delicately sad--at least when West is in top form--as any Irish country girl in an Edna O'Brien story.
West, who died in 1984 at the age of 82, is best remembered for a collection of stories, "The Friendly Persusasion," which became a William Wyler movie starring Gary Cooper. These stories reflect tales she heard from her mother about life among Southern Indiana Quakers late in the 19th Century.
What "The Friendly Persuasion" with its unique blend of the quaint and the piquant was to contribute to West's less well-known but more important California work was religious vividness in certain key characters, such as LeRoy Raunce, the preacher in "South of the Angels," a man who had "a faculty very rare in the human race--he was born with a sense of gratitude. Thankfulness flowed out from him, washed over pine planks, crude oil, Jersey cows, applesauce, daybreak, nightfall, the marriage bed, the Acts of the Apostles and everything between, behind, before, after, under and above those items. He relished the Santa Ana dust in his hair and the hauled water with which he washed it out."
As for real estate, West captures the romance of Orange County's version of the thing. From "South of the Angels"again: "Shel, on the Tract, was like a man seeing for the first time the naked body of the woman he loves; seeing what before he has only guessed, the long, clean lines, the sun-flushed simplicity, the grave starkness." If that isn't romance, what is? But Shel isn't looking at Saddleback Mountain or the mighty Pacific. He is looking at an Orange County tract.
When it comes to local paranoia, West notices it but always in passing and usually with a faint smile. In "South of the Angels," set, as noted, during the First World War, some of the ranchers are laying in arms. The Germans, they have no doubt, are organizing Mexico for an invasion. It's just a matter of time.
Regarding immigration, West's work is a reminder that California, white California, was peopled mostly by immigration from the American Midwest, from places like her own Southern Indiana. For most of those immigrants, America's hope had already turned to bitter disappointment at least once. Orange County fears have some of the desperation of the last chance.
As for escapism, here in the mother county of the American theme park, that epochal engine of jollity, it is a relief of a sort to go back 70 yeasr and follow the simpler fancy and wiser folly of Cress Delahanty, who decides that she needs a "trademark" to succeed in high school and that "craziness" is the most promising one to be had.
And, finally, as for family, read what happens to Cress when her experiment with craziness goes awry and she ends up in tears because nobody takes her seriously anymore. Mrs. Delahanty starts toward Cress' room:
"She didn't know what she would or could say when she got there. Maybe, 'Cress, people like you and your father have to try on more than one way of being and doing to see who you are. And you're bound to make mistakes.' Maybe she would say, 'My sweet sensible daughter.' But she would surely hug her and kiss her. Her arms, as she heard through the closed door those catching sobs, already felt that stocky body grow quiet. She opened the door and said, 'Cress, honey."'
\o7 That\f7 is how--then or now--you write a novel in Orange County.