The Dark History of Eastern California: A Conversation with Kendra Atleework

November 1, 2020   •   By Alex Espinoza

FEW WRITERS MANAGE to capture the essence of the California that exists beyond the images typically offered up by film and television — palm trees, beaches, gridlock, Hollywood, Kardashians; images the rest of the country seems so willing to accept about us “out here.” Kendra Atleework’s new memoir Miracle Country, published in July by Algonquin Books, maps the region of Eastern California where William Mulholland stole the water and terraformed the SoCal landscape into the place we now know. Atleework invites us to linger in this geography, among the jagged peaks and windswept plains surrounding Bishop, Independence, and Lone Pine, with the granite boulders, majestic pines, and ice blue lakes untouched by human interaction. Mulholland’s theft left in its wake an ecological catastrophe that still scars the region. Yet the area and its residents continue to thrive even as wildfires and tourism threaten the pristine landscape. Echoing the works of Carey McWilliams and Mike Davis, Atleework’s assertive love letter to this geography paints a vivid picture of a place, and a family, that has weathered countless storms, fires, and cataclysms both large and small.

A native of the region, Atleework received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and her writing has been awarded an Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award and the AWP Intro Journals Project Award. Kirkus Reviews called Miracle Country a “sensitive, thoughtful portrait of a part of California that few people see — or want to.” The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “Kendra Atleework’s powerful debut is the rare trifecta that seamlessly blends personal narrative with historical nonfiction and highly charged, activist-style rhetoric with rarely a misstep or heavy hand,” while Publishers Weekly stated that “Atleework’s remarkable prose renders the ordinary wondrous and firmly puts this overlooked region of California onto the map.” Its elegant prose, deftly balanced narrative, and careful research are sure to make readers fall in love with Miracle Country.


ALEX ESPINOZA: Can you walk me through the genesis of Miracle Country? How did it start?

KENDRA ATLEEWORK: Miracle Country is a reckoning with the idea of home. For me, my home is the biggest and most important part of who I am — the writer self that made this book, but also the self that gardens and cleans the house and watches the mountains as they change every day (I can see them as I write this, fuzzy with rare rain clouds). The process of making the book began during a college writing class where I was assigned to write about grief. I wrote the essay “Charade,” which was later included in The Best American Essays 2015, about being a misfit teenager in a rural mountain town and losing my mother. That was my first attempt at writing about my home and the difficult memories that reside there. After that, I read Ian Frazier’s Great Plains, which showed me that setting can be as powerful an organizing principle for a book as a plot or a character. And then I decided I wanted to study the craft of writing and get serious. The real work started when I went to grad school at the University of Minnesota. I wanted to get far, far away from California and go some place green. Even though I needed that physical distance between me and my home state, I knew I was going away to write about California. Miracle Country really began to exist when I was 23 and living in Minneapolis, in a landscape that couldn’t be more different from the one I’d left behind. That’s when the homesickness ratcheted up and the muse was with me. 

How is memory tied to place for you as a writer?

I get places stuck in my head like songs. Every place that’s ever made an impact on me — my grandparents’ flat little ranch-style house on the central coast of California, surrounded by oaks and pomegranate trees, say, or the dripping woods of Northern Minnesota by the shore of Lake Superior — the auras of these places rise up and interrupt my life when I’m far away. Multiply that times a million with my home. Living in Minnesota, I dreamed of home constantly, though in dreams the landscape was often unfamiliar and bizarre or damaged somehow.

Since, for me, memory is inextricably paired with place, I didn’t want to go home for a long time after my mom died. I finished high school and moved to Los Angeles and I stayed away, eventually moving to San Diego and then to Minnesota. The memories of my mom’s death and the sudden emptiness that descended on our desert and mountains — the places she’d taught us to love — were too much for me. I think of a place as having a memory, too. While doing research for Miracle Country, I learned about the history of my home valley and California and the West. The history I uncovered was hard to sit with. Miracle Country tells the story of the 10 years I was gone, during which time I came to terms with my own difficult memories and the troubled history of my home. In those years, I realized that I was always going to be a little bit heartbroken unless I did the brave thing and came back, even though returning meant living beside that darkness.

Who are some authors that have influenced your work?

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass helped me develop my thinking about reciprocity with the nonhuman elements of a place, as well as reciprocity within a community. Rebecca Solnit’s books helped me think about history, culture, beauty, and landscape. Her writing allowed me to see culture not as an inevitability but as something we actively shape and can change. Richard Rodriquez’s Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father was influential to my thinking about Californian optimism and forgetfulness. Rodriguez was incredibly influential on my writing at the sentence level. I learned so much from his essayist’s mind, how he follows an idea instead of a plot. Ellen Meloy’s oeuvre helped me articulate my love for deserts as places that are to be treasured although they aren’t obviously fertile.

I learned the expansiveness of the first-person voice and the power of merging memory and history from my graduate school mentor, the author Patricia Hampl. Her book I Could Tell You Stories was crucial to my understanding of the genre of literary nonfiction. So many more thinkers and writers were huge in my development as a writer and in the creation of Miracle Country. It’s a quilt of a book, and that’s one of my favorite things about it. There’s a page at the back that goes into more depth on my research and inspiration. 

In what ways did writing this book reshape your understanding of — and appreciation for — a place you know so intimately?

If I loved home deeply before writing Miracle Country, I love it madly now — perhaps because I’ve come to know its dark side so intimately. Being able to see the ugliness in this place, the grim layers of its history, the lack and absence and loss that defines it, makes it whole and beautiful. I have these reptilian, pre-conscious memories of the sounds and smells and light of the Eastern Sierra from earliest childhood. And now I have an intellectual relationship to its history and its complicated contemporary dynamics. If anything, writing this book confirmed my suspicion that all I really need to feel fulfilled in life is to be able to watch the sun go down behind these mountains at the end of the day.

What was something new about Bishop and the Owens Valley that you discovered during the process of working on the memoir?

I was shocked to learn of the systematic attempted extermination of the indigenous people of this valley, the Nuumu/Paiute people. In the 1860s, ranchers started to arrive in Owens Valley. The army soon followed and launched a war of attrition that culminated in a death march. In July 1863, the army marched about 1,000 people 225 miles over a mountain range and abandoned them in the desert with minimal supplies. The survivors turned around and walked home, and their descendants maintain a vital community here today. Growing up, I had no idea about any of this.

I also didn’t know how deeply this story is tied to the infamous Los Angeles water grab. Since 1913, Los Angeles has exported water from the Eastern Sierra via an aqueduct that runs 270 miles from Mono Lake, through Owens Valley, all the way to the city, which could not have grown to its present size without that water. Los Angeles continues to get, on average, about a third of its water from my home. The indigenous name for Owens Valley is Payahuunadu, which means land of flowing waters. This was a literal description of the place before Los Angeles rerouted the water, as this valley used to run green with snowmelt. The city’s use of this water represents an ongoing colonial relationship between the Eastern Sierra and Los Angeles. The Nuumu are still locked in legal conflict with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) over water rights illegally stripped and never restored. Similarly, my local community is constantly negotiating with the city to keep enough water in the valley to support our economy and vulnerable ecosystems. When Los Angeles pumps and diverts water, meadows and habitats suffer, so it’s an ongoing struggle between the city and the community here in the Eastern Sierra. The crazy thing is that people from Los Angeles love to come up to our area to enjoy the outdoors, and I’m certain many of them would want their utility company to care for the environment and the people here. As rate payers, Angelenos have the power to put pressure on LADWP to respect the Eastern Sierra above its bottom line. As Californians, we all have the capacity to push toward redefining the way we perceive and use water in this state, from agriculture to landscaping. But so many people have no idea where their water comes from. 

Your memoir gives a literary identity to a place that is often underrepresented in California literature. Do you hope your book will complicate people’s perceptions of our state, pushing past the images of movie stars, the Golden Gate Bridge, surfers, and beaches?

I hope this book will help folks see that some of the most urgent issues of our time are playing out right now in California. These include the ripple effects of colonialism and the consequences of a culture that has applauded unchecked growth. I loved getting to know California more intimately while writing this book. What fascinates me about our home state is the meeting of innovation and reckless optimism. The Gold Rush, for example, positioned California to become an economic and technological mega-player in the nation and the world. We’re a state known for our wild thinking, our willingness to buck convention and take risks. But optimism has a dark side, and that’s forgetfulness, a sense of invincibility.

This is the attitude that led to the aggressive settlement of the West by boosters and land developers, despite the advice of the geologist John Wesley Powell in the 1870s. Powell warned that developing the West as if it were the East was unwise because of the climate and lack of water. Boosters poised to profit off the newly completed transcontinental railroad accused Powell of fraud and continued to build in the desert. In 1903, the author Mary Austin wrote that “not the law but the land sets the limit.” Those words resonate today.

Given our already fickle climate and our huge population, California is on the front lines of climate change. In the West, we’re contending with increased climatic variability and the fact that we have settled millions of people in deserts and fire-prone wildlands — areas reliant on imported water, which may not always be available. I hope the rest of the country can take California as an example: a cautionary tale about what can happen when we forget our dependency on systems more ancient and powerful than those of our own making. I also hope we can direct the optimistic and innovative spirit that is inherently Californian to lead the country to engage with our environment in new ways. Over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in California, for example. And yet, water scarcity is an ongoing problem in the West, which means the folks driving agriculture are going to have to adapt and think according to the long term, a challenge for us as a species. As Californians, we have the responsibility to rethink our industries and do things differently. I hope we can lead the way to pushing culture in new directions, through technology but also by remembering Mary Austin’s words and living accordingly, with modesty and respect for each other and the land, and thinking far into the future about more than immediate profit. 

One particularly moving image in your book (at least for me) remains the opening passage: “I have a photograph of my mother on a rock ledge over water somewhere in the mountains. Basalt rings the lake. My mother stands naked at the edge of the precipice looking across the desert, arms around her pregnant belly, as water scatters sun.” Your mother died when you were 16. What was it like writing about a parent who passed away years ago? What did writing about her teach you about yourself now? 

One of the hardest things about writing Miracle Country was writing about my mom. I listened to the recording of her memorial service for the first time in the decade since her death while writing this book. I studied her letters, which I read rarely even now, 14 years after her death, because they are so hard to look at. To put her in the book, I needed to immerse myself in her voice. Doing so made me grateful to have had her at all. It also highlighted what I’d lost. I live within her imprint, and her absence is always all around me. She died when I was on the cusp of adulthood, and now that I live in my hometown again, I imagine how she would have fit into my life. She would have been my neighbor. We would have helped each other in the garden and loaned books and walked along the canals and hiked in summer and skied cross-country together in winter. I missed one of the greatest friendships of my life. There’s an abiding loneliness that comes with that realization, which will never leave me. 

One of the things I admired so much about Miracle Country was all the research you poured into it. Not only do we get deep and personal accounts of you and your family, but you write about the flora and fauna of the region, the temperature extremes, rocks and boulders and mountains. We get Mary Austin and, of course, William Mulholland and the stolen water. How did you balance all of these threads? Were there specific areas you wished you’d explored more?

My life was a construction zone around this book for so many years. I had to do a lot of cutting. I wrote an entire chapter on the Gold Rush that I pulled because things were getting bogged down. I probably wrote 2,000 pages or more and honed them into these 300. And I had to cut many, many quotes from other writers. Weaving the threads together was the hardest part of writing Miracle Country, and it took years. At one point, I rewrote the entire book chronologically as a traditional memoir, and that just drained the life out of it, but it was a useful exercise because it showed me where the personal parts of the story needed more muscle and where the research should come in. My relationship to my family is so inextricable from my relationship to our home and its history that it was just a matter of weaving and reweaving until the threads felt as wedded in the book as they are in my life. I tip my hat to the folks at the MFA program at the University of Minnesota, to my brilliant agent, Janet Silver, and to my editor at Algonquin Books, Kathy Pories, for helping me along the way.

I watched a YouTube video of you giving a walking tour of your California, and I learned that Bishop is one of the mule capitals of the world. What other interesting facts can you share with us about Bishop and Eastern California?

Our county (Inyo) is only slightly smaller than the country of Belgium and contains 18,000 people. If you spread our population out evenly, you’d have fewer than two people per square mile. In greater Los Angeles, for each square mile, you’d have 2,600. We sometimes jokingly call ourselves “Western Nevada.” Maybe not entirely jokingly. Folders in the archive of our local Eastern California Museum feature topics such as bats, barbed wire, deer, fossils, fire protection, guns, ghost towns, hantavirus, sheep, saddles, packers and pack outfits, earthquakes, and, of course, our biggest annual holiday, Mule Days. The museum also showcases dentures made out of melted toothbrush handles and coyote teeth. We’re nothing if not creative. 

Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on next?

The only clue I can give about the next book — mostly because I don’t really know much more myself — is that it includes Vikings, and anyone who’s into bloody battle scenes and crazy family and gender dynamics needs to check out the 13th-century Icelandic sagas, in which I’m currently neck deep.


Alex Espinoza is the author of The Five Acts of Diego Léon.