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By T. Jefferson Parker
HarperTorch, 2006 ($7.99)
Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel
As Nick Becker drives through present day Orange County to meet his brother, memories going back almost forty years fill his mind. Thoughts of growing up near the Sunblesst Packinghouse in the 50's, when the scent of orange blossoms filled the air, and where, in 1968, a terrible crime was committed, a crime that would impact the lives of everyone in the close-knit community, the Beckers and the Vonns most of all. Coming into San Clemente, he remembers Dick Nixon, a friend of the family, and of his parents' involvement with the John Birch Society. This saga of two families includes all this and more, but this meeting of two brothers is all about Janelle Vonn's murder, and the possibility that everything they thought they knew about her and the crime might be wrong.
The story begins in 1954, with a fateful confrontation between the four Becker brothers, David, Nick, Clay and Andy, and the Vonns, Lenny, Casey, and Ethan. The Vonns had a reputation as bullies, descendants of murderers back in Texas, but Clay set the rumble in motion by trashing Casey's new cap. It is the first time the Beckers meet Janelle Vonn, a little girl with a faded blue dress and scuffed cowboy boots and a defiant look in her eye. The last time they saw her, fourteen years later, she was lying dead on the floor of the deserted Sunblesst plant, but it was not the end of her hold on the family.
The main part of the mystery takes place in 1968, when major events impacted all of American society, and one particular event shook the community of Tustin, California, to its core.
The boys grew up in the turbulent 60's, and Jefferson does not fail to mention hippies, pot, LSD (including cameo appearances by Timothy Leary and other historical and notorious figures), peace protests, and the Vietnam War.
David finds a calling in the ministry, opening the first drive-in service. Nick becomes a police officer, Andy is a reporter, and Clay is a casualty of war in a far-away jungle. The Becker parents and their friends become Birchers as their orange fields are replaced by urban sprawl, and the Vonns continue their downward path to destruction.
There is a mystery here, but it is almost overshadowed by the engrossing story of two California families and the historical and sociological details of four important decades that shaped their lives, and ours. Jefferson is a masterful storyteller, and this journey through our recent past is an enjoyable one.
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