How many people can recall the classic image after the 1968 Delano Grape Boycott of a weakened Cesar Chavez breaking a 25-day hunger strike seated next to Senator Robert Kennedy?

Unfortunately, too few – history buffs or not. Yet Chavez’s fire and commitment had staggering repercussions, and John DeSimone’s The Road To Delano (Rare Bird Books) brings it all back. (Read our review here.)

“We live in days where people too quickly are encouraged to portray themselves as victims and fall into the trap of feeling sorry for themselves,” says DeSimone. “Cesar Chavez showed everyone we don’t have to be mired in victimhood — that we can each find our own way to a meaningful life.”

The idea for DeSimone’s novel came after reading about Chavez’s fast for nonviolence. “I felt his moral stand, which I consider heroic, more than likely influenced the moral choices of the young people around him.”

“Then I came up with the protagonists who are affected by the strike in different ways. Jack and Adrian are confronted with a series of choices essential to their future — choices that will shape their destiny and their characters in different ways far beyond their high school days.”

MORE THAN A COMING-OF-AGE STORY

Delano, California, was a town dependent on growing and harvesting grapes, which, in turn, is an industry dependent on Filipino and Mexican seasonal workers. This is a symbiotic, although tenuous, relationship in the town where Jack lives with his mother, goes to school, loves his girlfriend and plays baseball with his best friend Adrian, with the hope of getting scholarships and getting out of Dodge. By all rights, The Road to Delano should be a predictable coming-of-age story. It is not.

All the standard components of a love story are there, but they’re only part of DeSimone’s intention. He balances murder and loyalty, pits profit against exploitation and friendship against circumstance.

Discussing his protagonists Jack and Adrian, DeSimone says, “First, they are best friends. It’s this friendship that breaks down barriers, whether race, economic status, etc. What unites people from different backgrounds is the empathy that allows them to take a deep breath and listen to each other. The fact that empathy allows us to enter into another person’s world stops our natural prejudices from dominating our thoughts.

“Jack and Adrian have common goals — they want to play baseball at the next level. This deep-seated ambition motivates them to work hard. This mutual goal creates a bond and compels them to help each other, to have each other’s backs during tough times, and to make the right choices during morally challenging times.”

MASTERING CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL UNDERCURRENTS

The most difficult part of the writing, according to DeSimone, was getting inside the heads of the farm workers themselves, and accurately writing scenes with historical characters such as Cesar Chavez. “I wanted to be as accurate as possible, and one of his close associates was able to read the book before it went to print and helped me refine Cesar’s dialogue.”

DeSimone buried himself in research: “Reading books on Cesar Chavez was a start. Interviewing several locals who attended Delano High School during that time gave me a lot of detail. Then library research in both Delano and Bakersfield gave me more insight into what growers were at least writing in editorials and articles, and the tense back and forth that transpired during those highly charged times.”

Some of his characters developed from real people. “Jack’s father, Sugar Duncan, is based on an actual grower in the 1950s who challenged the status quo at a grower’s association meeting to change the ways they treated the migrant workers. He was pressured to leave the valley, so I based my character on him. Adrian is based on a young man who was a very popular athlete in high school. Jack is based on a fairy tale, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’”

The Road to Delano is a worthwhile read on a couple of levels: it’s a wonderful visit to John Steinbeck’s California and a valuable history lesson we may have missed in high school if we weren’t paying attention.

“I hope the characters’ moral courage inspires readers to see what it takes to be their own person, to stand up for what is right and true, and to be agents of their own uplift.”

Learn more about DeSimone on his BookTrib author profile page.

John DeSimone is a professional memoir ghostwriter, editor and novelist. He began working as a freelance editor for A-1 Editorial where he performed developmental and copy editing for both novelists and non-fiction writers. He guided authors through the developmental process of refining their voice and subject matter for publication. During that time he edited over a hundred books, both fiction and nonfiction.