Susan Straight’s “Mecca” immerses us in an often-overlooked population eking out an existence in the harsh desert of Southern California where the Santa Ana winds begin and rule the surrounding landscape. Fire follows the winds and only the people whose families have lived there for generations know how to really survive. Most are of Mexican descent, and despite the fact their ancestors settled in the area as early as the 1700’s, long before the white ranchers and cowboys and merchants came, they are told to “go home”, asked if they are U.S. citizens, called wetbacks, or “they could say what the leader of the free world said.”
Straight has a unique gift of being able to move into a culture and bring it to life in her books. A native Californian, she has keen insight into the people who fight the fires, serve the tourists, grow the vegetables for most of the nation, and provide the essential services to keep an economy humming without getting much in return.
There are myriad characters in “Mecca” — enough that I wish I had kept a running list of them as I read to keep them all straight — Johnny, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) motorcycle cop, who learned to stay silent while being insulted by the lead-footed drivers he pulls over; Ximena, the teenage undocumented maid at a spa where women come to surgically transform their bodies and faces; Matelasse, whose mother had “something of everything in her: Spanish and French and Indian and African, trying to raise two boys on her own, counting her cleaning money by sandwiches and Capri Suns.
It’s a world I haven’t seen in a novel before, with characters full of complexity, hopes, fears, bitterness, grit and determination, and lots of love. Susan Straight is a master storyteller and pulls you in from the first page. I only wish it had gone on longer — the ending is abrupt and leaves you wondering what’s next for these people you have come to care so much about.
Thank you to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and Netgalley for the eARC.