Wonder Valley by Ivy Pochoda
A few years ago a friend who lives in New York City, but summers near Parry Sound, told me about a terrific new book written by her daughter’s friend Ivy Pochoda,Visitation Street. You can read my review of that book on our website, written in September 2013.
Ivy Pochoda now has a new book, Wonder Valley. Equally as good as her first, and again about a place, and people, most of us know little about. Wonder Valley tells the story of people who live in a world so far outside my own experience that I found myself both distressed and fascinated in equal measure.
We follow a cast of characters from 2006 to 2010, with the years between filled in as we read. There is Ren, a young black man recently released from prison, determined to find his mother and make a better life for himself. And Tony, a middle aged white man, a lawyer, who appears to have a good life but finds it awfully hard to keep it all together. And Britt, a young woman, running from her past and falling into a very strange community in the California desert. And, a pair of serial criminals, Blake and Sam, dangerous men. And, the Flynn family, Patrick and Grace and their twin sons Owen and James. They will all find their lives connecting in some way or other throughout the novel.
The action beings in 2010 with a scene on a busy highway in Los Angeles, the commuter traffic moving slowly, when a running man appears. He is running between the vehicles, across lanes of traffic – and he is naked. Who he is, and what his story is, is the thread that binds these characters and this novel together.
I found this book utterly compelling, I could not wait to get back to it each time I had to put it down to work, or to sleep. Wonder Valley takes place on Skid Row in Los Angeles, at a cult like community in the California desert, in down and out bars and hotels, and in the privileged suburbs of a sprawling American city. I was constantly reminded of just how very privileged I am. As middle class Canadians we may have occasional stress as we juggle the family finances to keep everything afloat, but our lives are so far removed from life on the street that it is hard to really understand what that life is like. There are characters in this novel who truly have almost nothing. Unfortunate souls, who live in desperation and fear. They are truly homeless. There is no one who is going to help beyond those who work among them, attempting to assist with food and the offer of shelter and medical care.
There are people damaged by mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse. There are people who disappear, and those who choose to become invisible. As one of the Flynn boys says, “down here your past is your past, no better or worse than anyone else’s. People don’t ask questions and they don’t judge. We’ve all got stories. And trust me, there’s always someone whose story is worse than yours.”