Lauren Coodley’s “Napa Valley Chronicles” is a book that crosses a number of genres and literary traditions. Part storytelling, part “oral history” and part personal memoir, the chronicles seem designed to become a kind of future cultural artifact of a valley that is on a journey of unrelenting transition. It is a book of literary snapshots – snippets and images – rapidly threading its way from the 19th and 20th centuries, and onto the very threshold of the 21st century.
The chronicles are divided into two narratives that form a kind of threshold at which the author found herself after she arrived in the valley in the 1970s. Part I loosely chronicles various important and selected Napa County events and personages from the 19th century. It reveals a rapid transition toward modernity through the early 20th century up to and including the 1950s. We learn about the historical bulwarks of the valley: Vallejo, Yount, Pope and Stevenson. But it also uncovers an internal diversity of neighborhoods — including Spanish, Chinese, Italian and Anglo — all residing in relative harmony in the small city of Napa.
Part II carries on the loose narrative with personal reminisces of events and personages known by the author herself. Coodley writes, in Part II, “When I arrived in Napa, it seemed like a place that few strangers ever visited and few locals ever left, a kind of Brigadoon, where the narrow roads in and out of town were rarely traveled.”
Coodley acknowledges that the Napa of Part I has disappeared, and that the realm in which she is living is in rapid transition. “This volume is a way of writing precious lives into history, those of the living and the dead, and making certain their lives are not forgotten.”
Of particular importance to the book are the cameos of determined women who created the texture and the color of the communities within the Napa Valley, and who, too often, have indeed been forgotten by historical accounts. This includes Rita Harren Bordwell, who “challenged the conventions about what a woman should do and be.” She was born in 1885 in Napa and became well-known as the so-called “6th Supervisor” of Napa County. Bordwell was both a labor activist (as secretary to the Napa Central Labor Council) as well as historian, creating the first history of the Napa Fire Department and writing a definitive history of the labor movement in the valley. She died in the 1970s.
In a similar fashion, Coodley sketches a portrait of St. Helena’s Ivy Loeber, who was born in 1880 and who became a driving force within the valley to preserve its history. She was one of the founders of the Napa County Historical Society and was instrumental in the establishment of the Bale Grist Mill as a state park.
According to Coodley, it was Loeber — standing in the shadow of the old mill in 1948 during a “pioneer picnic” — who “developed a vision of the Napa County Historical Society.” Without Loeber, according to Coodley, much of what we know today as our heritage would have been lost.
There are cameos of Napa Register reporter Phyllis King in the 1940s and Peggy Connolly who left the Connolly Ranch to the Land Trust, and many more. On through the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and into the 1990s, Coodley seems to sample the lesser-known personages of the Napa Valley who she believes represent the real character — and whose efforts are the real legacies — of the valley.
In the final chapter of the book, titled “The Way We Live Today,” Coodley comes full circle to document the mixed heritages that are contained in the Napa Valley. There are portraits of families who are more recent arrivals, such as the Vu family, which came to the valley from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, and the Navarro family, who arrived from Mexico to work in the wine industry. Coodley’s writing reminds us that the valley has always been a crossroads where different cultures can be discovered and where many different languages might be heard.
It’s that diversity, Coodley seems to be saying, that will be significant through the 21st century long after the hegemony of grape harvests and wine tasting notes are forgotten. Coodley’s book is a reminder that all of us are creating the unique history in the Napa Valley, moment by moment, as we live our lives through the heritages of those who came before us.
Published in 2013 by The History Press, the book succeeds in creating something that is truly unique: a kind of historical travelogue of Napa Valley characters who flicker in and out of focus like the portraits of an animator’s flip book. It’s a good and nourishing read with lots of historical photos.