Louis Owens and John Steinbeck's Ghosts

A mystery solved with the help of a professor and a mobster's musician

As I talked to them, it dawned on me that all of these stories occurred when Tony was in his twenties and older. He'd already been married and had kids. What I didn't know about at all, I told him, were his earlier years. What, for example, did he do as a teenager?

"We were pickers," he said, and Virginia nodded her head. Her father, she said, operated a camp for fruit pickers.

Tony's family—his parents, brothers, and sisters—spent many years going where the crop was. His earliest memories, in fact, were of days spent riding in a wagon as it traveled around the state. They'd go down to Brawley, close to the Mexican border, to pick winter lettuce, and then make the long trip back up to the Riverside area, where they'd pick oranges. On one of those trips, when he was five years old, the wagon hit a curbstone while they were passing through Oceanside, pitching him and his mother out of the wagon. She landed on him roughly and broke his leg. The doctors recommended amputating the leg, but Tony's father wouldn't hear of it. They bundled him up in the wagon and kept going. For the rest of his life, Tony walked with a characteristic limp.

Louis Owens  won the American Book Award in 1997 for his novel Nightland.
Louis Owens won the American Book Award in 1997 for his novel Nightland.
Tony and Virginia swore that Lucky Luciano took in  one of their nightclub shows.
Tony and Virginia swore that Lucky Luciano took in one of their nightclub shows.


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LOUIS OWENS, 1948-2002

  • His Wikipedia page
  • A beautiful description of Owens, written by one of his best friends, former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Glen Martin
  • An excellent, lengthy interview with Owens conducted by Western Washington University professor John Purdy

    The Novels

  • Wolfsong, 1995
  • The Sharpest Sight, 1995
  • Bone Game, 1996
  • Nightland, 1996
  • Dark River, 1999
  • After the oranges, he continued, they'd go up to the Bakersfield area in the fall to pick cotton.

    Wait a minute, I interrupted. My grandfather? And his brothers? Cotton pickers in the San Joaquin Valley?

    For years and years, he said.

    Stunned, I did the math: In 1933, he would have been 18.

    And in 1933? I asked him. Were you picking cotton that year? The year of the . . .

    Yeah, the strike, he said. The big one.

    I vividly remember calling Louis as soon as I could get my hands on my grandparents' phone.

    Get a tape recorder, now, he said.

    Soon, I was taping. And as I began quizzing my grandfather about the strikers and farmers and organizers, he asked if he could invite someone over who remembered this stuff a lot better.

    His older brother, Román.

    Now I felt ashamed. I have literally dozens and dozens of aunts and uncles and great-aunts and cousins and second cousins, and it's been hell keeping them all straight because I go to Redlands—the center of the Ortega universe—less and less frequently. But I do try. So it was embarrassing that here was a great-uncle that I'd never even heard of.

    Román was 87, nine years older than Tony, and he drove over as soon as he heard from us.

    They were actually half-brothers, the sons of different fathers, and if Tony was having a harder and harder time walking, the older Román was the picture of health. Like my grandfather, Román grew up with Spanish as his first language, so his English was not only accented, but he spoke it in a wonderful, booming, slightly stilted voice, slipping into Spanish at least once per sentence. His memory was as sharp as I could have wanted.

    Not wanting to feed them answers, I carefully asked the two brothers about the nature of the strike. One of the things I wanted to know about most, for example, was what the Mexicans in the fields understood about the organizers.

    What, I asked Román, did he know about the people leading the strike?

    "The organizer was from San Francisco," he said.

    You remember his name?

    "Yeah, Pat Chambers."

    You knew him?

    "Oh, yeah. He was about 28, 30 years of age," he said. "He was a Communist."

    "Of course, we heard that from the ranchers," Tony added.

    "Those were hard times," Román said. And he confirmed what I'd read: "There were more Mexicans than gabachos," he said, using the Mexican word for white people.

    Román reminded Tony that while they waited out the strike, they had stayed in a nameless camp under a stand of eucalyptus trees, about 10 or 12 people sharing meals.

    "I remember being in a camp," Tony said, nodding.

    "Manuel, they took him to jail, you know," Román reminded him, referring to another brother. "He was an agitator."

    The extended Ortega clan was just a small contingent in the thousands-strong strike force. While Tony and Román and the others camped under trees, thousands of other workers had made massive, organized camps in places like Corcoran. Despite being on the periphery of that, however, the Ortega brothers said they had gained some notoriety because they could all play music.

    "The only reason we knew Pat Chambers was that we were entertainers," Tony said. "We'd get a special meal because we played the hall," he added. And at other times, they would go out on a flatbed truck to play for other workers.

    "Remember on the flat truck, tocando [playing]?" Román asked his brother. "You with the violin, me with the clarinet, Gabriel with the guitar. Two guys from Earlimart—one playing a cornet, the other one, I think it was saxophone?"

    "We were just entertainers. People there knew we could play," Tony said.

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