In the pre-blog days I read and loved Evidence of Things Unseen by Wiggins, a book set in East Tennessee. I think it’s worthy of a second reading, but meanwhile I read her 2022 book.
It took me a long time to take in this 544-page book with its layers of stories and many important characters. It was breathtaking. First we meet Rocky whose father had been a robber baron, leaving Rocky and his twin sister a J.P. Morgan-size fortune. Rocky never could stand the East and bought a big plot of land near Los Angeles. Then came the Water Department from the city and bought up all the water rights, turning Rocky’s land into a wasteland. So timely is this book and such an old story (thinking Chinatown). Because Rocky’s wife died when their twins were two-year-olds, his sister came to live with them.
Twenty-some years later, Pearl Harbor has been bombed and Schiff, a Jewish lawyer, has the job of setting up and running a “relocation center” for 10,000 Japanese Americans. Schiff had the challenge of carrying out the presidential order that he knew was wildly unconstitutional and just wrong as he is trying to make caring arrangements for so many people. The camp was partially on the land owned by Rocky. His son was killed at Pearl Harbor and his daughter owned a restaurant in the tiny town where she provided gourmet meals.
If you enjoy reading about wonderful meals and a young person dedicated to learning about gourmet food, you will enjoy those passages. Rocky’s daughter Sunny from a young age began learning French so she could read her late mother’s cookbooks. And if you enjoy reading about people who have unlimited money taking a train across the country, then a ship across the ocean to savor the wonders available to the very rich, well, who can resist that guilty pleasure.
While the plot was ungainly, having turned away from the creation and running of the Japanese internment camp, still, I was impressed with the story involving Rocky and his two children. (A SPOILER ALERT here.) Several years before the Pearl Harbor bombing, Rocky’s son Stryker and his buddy drunkenly used an elephant to steal a vintage Cadillac. (I realize that sentence begs for lots of explanation, but I’m just going to leave it as is.) Two Water Department policemen come upon the scene and in the course of shooting the elephant, one of the policemen is killed. The two teenage miscreants escape, thanks to the rich father. Near the end of the book a chapter is devoted to the surviving policeman who years later manages to get revenge for the death of his comrade. He is an unappealing character, but he found justice for his friend. This chapter was one of the best parts of the book for me.
Marianne Wiggins shows her erudition on so many subjects; her breadth of knowledge is impressive. When this book was nearly finished in 2016, she had a massive stroke. In the moving Afterward by her daughter, Lara Porzak, she describes her work to help her mother regain her abilities and finish the book. Both the book itself and the creation of the book are amazing stories.
Marianne Wiggins, Properties of Thirst, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 544 pages. (I read the kindle version.)