MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW
Yugoslavian immigrant Martin Petrovich is only in San Francisco for a few years when disaster leads him to flee to the farming community of Watsonville, where he again points his goals towards his dream of a better life. The community of mixed European, Japanese, and Mexican immigrants seems a perfect match for his ambitions and background until Pearl Harbor changes everything once again.
While The California Immigrant's message about racial strife, profiling, and hatred explores a repetitive, key issue in American society, perhaps at few times is its story more relevant than to modern audiences.
Barbara King stumbled upon the background facts while researching her own family's immigrant history, but she's taken the story and run with it, elevating it to another level for historical fiction readers interested in either California in particular or the immigrant experiences of teens coming of age in America. Readers of California history will be delighted to discover that a rural Monterey Peninsula town is profiled which rarely receives attention in the usual California history chronicle.
From Martin's English classes and life with his uncle in San Francisco in 1904 to his connections to the Slavonic Society which keep him rooted to his heritage, King does more than set the stage for a good read. She educates her readers about immigrant perceptions and experiences, offers contrasts between new and old countries, and discusses how an immigrant maintains old and builds new connections to both worlds.
One minute, Martin's life is filled with ambition and promise; the next, it's fragmented, with all his dreams crushed. To its credit, The California Immigrant only uses the backdrop of the 1906 earthquake to propel its protagonist forward to Watsonville, where the heart of the story lies. Where other tales rehash familiar ground, King departs for something different. She follows the tracks of a young immigrant who is forced to relocate not only his physical life, but his dreams. There is still a Slavonic Society to provide connections and roots, there's still family to support him, and there's still hope for the future in his new home.
The California Immigrant is steeped in the Croatian community and documents how world politics invades a quiet town and leads Martin to become politically active to help his fellow countrymen back home. It juxtaposes the culture of California and its mixture of ethnic groups and immigrants with the broader questions of an America posed on the brink of conflict, blending the concerns of rural farmers and local small townspeople into changing worldviews which many of the immigrants foster through their actions and choices.
In many ways, The California Immigrant represents the quintessential mix that is American culture, which takes the roots and concerns of an array of different peoples and blends them into an evolving society, creating something completely different than its individual units or origins.
From the San Francisco diplomatic conference that reconnects Martin to his family and San Francisco as it attempts to move the world into a new era before the war is even over to Watsonville's struggles as Japanese-Americans who had been interned during the war return to fragmented and uncertain futures, King captures all the nuances of the times.
These blend wonderfully into Martin's changing life over the years, acknowledging the passage of time, the healing of hurt, the solidification of new objectives, and how immigrant perspectives change American culture.
These lessons are embedded in a vivid, realistic story that's hard to put down. Readers seeking a California immigrant tale that weaves discussions of war into rural concerns will relish the delightful juxtaposition of interests and history that makes Martin's story come alive in The California Immigrant.
No California collection should be without it.--D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
In this debut novel, a Croatian immigrant forges a life for himself at the start of the 20th century.
When 16-year-old Martin Petrovich leaves his hometown of Dubrovnik on a ship bound for the United States, he knows that he may never see his parents and siblings again. An uncle he has never met is waiting to give him a job in San Francisco. Then Martin can send money home to his relatives. Under his uncle’s tutelage and full of his own ambition, Martin resolves to work hard and learn everything he can in hopes of establishing a business of his own. Yet soon the devastating earthquake of 1906 brings the city to its knees, destroying buildings and taking the lives of many loved ones. In the aftermath, Martin settles in Watsonville, a California town that holds fewer painful memories. Over the course of the novel’s ambitious scope, King neatly summarizes many important political and cultural moments of the time. Martin is affable and honorable, verging on excessively flawless. During his long and rich life, readers see him pour his soul into opening a restaurant, struggle with the law during Prohibition, serve as a naval convoy escort during World War I, and watch his own sons enlist in World War II. A special virtue of the story is the author’s focus on the diversity of the Watsonville population and the changing sentiments of the American public toward specific nationalities. In addition to the large band of Croatian American characters the protagonist befriends, standouts in the cast include Ken Nakamura, a Japanese American community leader whose family is placed in an internment camp, and Hector Lopez, a Mexican laborer who helps Martin maintain Ken’s farm in his absence. Through these relationships, King and her players advocate for universal kindness and acceptance of marginalized groups. A slogan created to unite the town summarizes Martin’s own outlook best: “Strength in diversity. Unity in cooperation.” Although the writing occasionally sounds very similar to a history textbook, Martin’s tale is full of perseverance, integrity, and humanity.
An American success story that deftly emphasizes the country’s multicultural heritage.—Kirkus Reviews