|When Water Was Everywhere|
In the hectic world of the twentieth-first century America, it is difficult to imagine that the busy city of Long Beach California was once a quite place of rolling hills, beautiful rivers, and charming Spanish Rancheros that over looked the Pacific Ocean. Today Long Beach is the 2nd busiest container port in the United States, the home of many large manufacturing companies, and the 6th largest city in California.
The first to occupy the Long Beach area were indigenous people, who lived in the area over 10,000 years ago. In the 16th century Spanish explorers arrived, and by 1784 large rancheros such as Rancho Los Nietos, Rancho Los Cerritos, and Rancho Los Alamitos occupied large tracts of land. In 1843, John Temple bought Los Cerritos and built a thriving cattle ranch. Temple eventually became the wealthiest man in Los Angeles County.
John Temple exemplifies the strong independent entrepreneurial characteristics of many men in the 19th century, who had the means to advance their own fortunes. Such historical characters add grist to the mill of historical fiction. Author, Barbara Crane, fashions her historical novel, When Water was Everywhere, after the life of John Temple. In this brief essay, Barbara explains:
Creating American Fiction From an American EntrepreneurThe historic John Temple wore many hats during his lifetime: American citizen, sea captain, Mexican citizen, storeowner, landowner, and cattle rancher. In spite of his importance in the Mexican Pueblo of Los Angeles, John Temple remains an overlooked figure in the American West. Known in the pueblo as Don Juan Temple, he was a man of means and influence when Alta California was a Mexican territory in the early to mid-19th century. Given his many accomplishments, I chose to base a main character in my historical novel, When Water Was Everywhere on John Temple.
Temple’s relative obscurity helped me as I created his fictional alter-ego, Don Rodrigo Tilman. The obscurity gave me space to speculate on Tilman’s thoughts and opinions. I was able to use some basic facts about Temple’s life, but his motivations and conduct were mine to create.
It was the affability that troubled me as I crafted the Don Rodrigo Tilman’s character. I needed a protagonist that would be the “top dog” over the three other major characters: a young American immigrant, a desperate Tongva Indian woman and a cynical Spanish padre.
Benevolence wasn’t going to cut it.
Consequently, I wrote Don Rodrigo Tilman as a businessman who is interested in the bottom line. Overall, he is an honest man, but he will resort to some subterfuge (and does in the novel) if it will help him reach his goal. I fashioned Tilman as a realist. He ponders the future of Mexican California, and worries about his place and that of his landowner-friends if the territory becomes a part of the United States. Will he and his business ventures fare well under American laws? Or is he better off as he is now with a lax Mexican government that demands little of him?
I didn’t want to portray him as evil. Just…practical. He is an upright citizen. He sincerely loves his wife and his only child, a daughter. When he lays the first adobe brick for his ranch house foundation—Indians do all the rest of the labor in exchange for food—he is justly proud of his new enterprise.
Shaping the American West must have been a formidable task. John Temple succeeded in the pueblo of Los Angeles and later, when California became the thirty-first state. In When Water Was Everywhere, Don Rodrigo Tilman succeeds also. Both had the grit, determination and desire to conquer a new land and bend it to their will, whatever qualities each displayed in public life.
Barbara Crane’s most recent novel, WhenWater Was Everywhere, won a Beverly Hills Book Award. She lives in Long Beach near Rancho Los Cerritos and the other sites in her novel.