Review from Arches alumni magazine, Summer 2010
Hans Ostrom, professor of English
174 pages, paperback
Congruent Angle Press, www.amazon.com
In Honoring Juanita, Hans Ostrom has created a beautiful tale about the forces that connect a small town in the California Sierras to an infamous event in its Gold Rush past. It’s a story about love and commitment, race and class, will and destiny, art, spirituality, mortality, unintended consequences, and frontier justice.
The title character never appears in the book but is a big presence on every page. Juanita was a Mexican woman who stabbed a popular miner to death after an Independence Day bash in Downieville, Calif., in 1851. After a farce of a trial she was lynched on the Durgan Bridge. The killing, date, and execution are generally accepted facts, but the rest of the truth, including Juanita’s actual name, has been lost to history. Ostrom notes that therefore the book is a work of pure fiction “and may be a source of disagreement. So it goes with the histories of California.” He adds, “Resemblances to actual persons or places are apparitional.”
Maybe so, but Juanita is an influential apparition to the residents of fictional Claytonville. Woodcarver Mary Bluestone, the central character and narrator of the tale, has a deeply held ethic for honoring Juanita. It is no coincidence that Mary chooses the anniversary of Juanita’s demise, Fourth of July weekend, to chain herself to a big rock to protest the impending damming of the river through town. Complications arise. The county sheriff arrests Mary, who, as it happens, is his wife. Lloyd Bluestone also once busted the county judge for drunk driving, which may not bode well for Mary’s trial. And the company building the dam, which is in dire financial straits, is pushing for heavy felony charges as a way to open a bridge to suing the county and the Bluestones for big bucks.
There is some marvelous, wry comedy in Honoring Juanita. The jail and courthouse staff are hilariously lax and accommodating in their treatment of their neighbor and prisoner. Other humorous characters include a once-successful novelist with a 20-year case of writer’s block, a woman running a wilderness camp for women, and the fancy lawyer she brings in from the state capital to defend Mary.
Things work out through a deus ex machina ending that nearly engulfs the town in a fireball, and which the novelist character describes as “goddamned unbelievable.”
Ostrom grew up in the California Sierras, and his boyhood home shines through in his marvelous descriptions of the town and surrounding area. Honoring Juanita is a touching story, well told.
-- Greg Scheiderer