This year’s literary offerings for Christmas stocking-stuffers present a unique challenge, especially for an old copy editor like me.
Both books, available at Amazon.com, are in crying need of a good editor. That being said, San Pedrans will still enjoy two very different, but very personal, looks at growing up in a San Pedro that no longer exists.
A New Day Yesterday by Peter Adum (325 pp., Ward Street Press, 2018, $16.95, paperback). Adum’s first novel was frustrating because I had such high expectations going in after reading the interview with the author that ran in this magazine two months ago. I kept wondering, what is this? A semi-historical novel? A thinly disguised memoir? A young adult romance? A political manifesto? An homage to ‘70s movies and music? It’s all of these and more. All taking place in San Pedro during Easter break 1973, which just adds to the confusion.
Like a lot of San Pedrans, Adum is obviously upset that old Beacon Street was razed to make way for redevelopment that has left a lot to be desired. Because he has a lot to say on the subject, he’s moved the Beacon Street demolition, which took place in 1971, ahead two years.
It’s against this backdrop that we follow the protagonist, San Pedro High School senior Niko, whose research for an overdue English paper helps him learn about his Croatian roots and San Pedro’s class struggles in the 1920s and ‘30s. He also finds plenty of time for girls, work, cruising, drinking, partying, sandlot football, and even fishing for tuna. As if the comparison isn’t obvious enough, Niko even goes to a premiere showing of American Graffiti.
A 1973 San Pedro High School graduate and Jethro Tull fan (thus the book’s title), Adum packs his book full of names and places familiar to all San Pedrans. It’s also annoyingly full of fictitious names and places that San
Pedrans will have no trouble figuring out, and the Vietnam veterans, Mexican cholos, Italians, and even Cousin Vlatko all seem to come right out of central casting. Pseudonyms are used for the main cast of characters, and considering some of the storylines, understandable, but you find yourself wondering: Is this character based on a real person? Did this event really happen?
For example, the demolition of Beacon Street did happen, but in this version, the developer behind it is a cartoon figure (think Mr. Burns in The Simpsons) used mainly for Adum to pontificate on the “evils” of big business. Cameos by Sterling Hayden and Gary Gabelich serve only for more political commentary and seem totally out of place.
With all of the ‘70s references and inferences, however, most San Pedrans, especially Adum’s classmates and any-one who had an 8-track tape player, will overlook the book’s flaws and take this joyride into the past.
From East Garrison to the Ranch House by Peter James Gravett (498 pp., 2018, $29.95, paperback). The autobiography of Gravett, one of San Pedro’s most distinguished citizens, fills in a glaring gap in San Pedro’s historical narrative, the black experience. Gravett’s parents were sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South.
When WWII brought opportunities for work in California, the Gravetts left Arkansas with eight children, including Peter, to join relatives already here. The family eventually grew to 11 children, and all eight boys served in the military. None, of course, had the career of Gravett, who retired from the Army as a major general.
By far, the best parts of the book are Gravett’s memories of growing up in San Pedro in the 1940s and ‘50s. The family moved into a newChannel Chan-nel Heights housing project in 1943; Dad ended up serving stateside with the famous Tuskegee Airmen. In 1954, they moved into the new Rancho San Pedro housing. Gravett recalls selling papers in old Beacon Street, mingling as a kid with the notorious cast of characters that populated that area. The family eventually bought a house on Oliver Street that was the focal point for neighborhood youth activities.
Gravett grew up in a home where the values of faith, hard work and education were inculcated into all of the children. All graduated from San Pedro High School (Peter in W‘59), and all were involved in sports. The family was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.
While the children, particularly when living in the low-income projects, got along with their multicultural neighbors, leaving Arkansas for California did not mean the end of discrimination. It was more institutional than overt here, however, in the military, law enforcement, education, and housing.
Gravett experienced racism in all of these areas, but drawing on his strong family background, he didn’t let it deter his resolve to succeed. And succeed he did, as the second half of the book describes, in great detail, his career in the Los Angeles Police Department, concurrent rise through the ranks in the National Guard and Army Reserve, and eventual appointment in retirement to state secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs.
You’ll have to read the book to understand the title, but it exemplifies Gravett’s journey and a story about San Pedro that needed to be told.
Steve Marconi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.