NOTE: From time to time, I read and recommend books to my readers that continue the discussion happening on this website about the deserts. I hope you will find these short book reports interesting and helpful.
THE IMPOSSIBLE LAND: Story and Place in the California Imperial Valley
The Imperial Valley of Southern California resists easy definition. In The Impossible Land author Phillip Round writes “Depending on who tells the story, the Imperial Valley in California is a trail of dreams, a cycle of harvests, the hand of God, a heart of fire.” Anyone who has visited The Salton Sea, a body of water created by the rampaging Colorado River just after the turn of the last century, finds now a great challenge to be addressed for the health, economy and wellbeing of the people of Imperial County and all of southern California.
A long tradition of telling stories across the world is anchored in place. Round argues convincingly that one way to understand these desert places is through the storytellers who worked there. He begins by exploring three strands of cosmopolitan storytelling in the area. The first from 1901 establishes a desert aesthetic movement in America, exploring the work of John C Van Dyke. Round continues, “The second, which begins about a decade later, mythologizes desert reclamation as a moral imperative of America.” The third strand, he continues, is the story of “human erosion:” dustbowl refugees whose stories were captured by photographer/ writers such as Dorothea Lange.
From there chapters explore the stories of Japanese-Americans, Chicano(a)/Mexican and migrating Native Americans. The book concludes with the author raising the question whether this grounding of place through storytellers is just an urban, cosmopolitan conceit of writers and publishers. He concludes, “I believe there is something to region, but only if one looks at it from the perspective of relation, from both inside and outside, cosmopolitan and local, in an impossible negotiation between implacably real landforms and deeply personal meanings.”
After visiting the Salton Sea for High & Dry, The Impossible Land helped me make sense of what I had experienced in preparation for writing upcoming dispatches, a story for Palm Springs Life magazine and explaining this area to myself and others.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the difficulties of the Imperial Valley better. Phillip Round engages the reader with several storytelling traditions while providing the curious layperson many useful insights into this complex area of many ethnic groups, expansive agricultural enterprises, varied environmental challenges and a giant transitory lake.