Excerpt from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Claire Vaye Watkins

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  • First Published:
    Aug 2012, 304 pages
    Aug 2013, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Print Excerpt

The Santa Susana Mountains are drier than the more picturesque Santa Monica Mountains that line the California coast. Because they are not privy to the moist winds rolling in off the sea, they are susceptible to fires. Twelve hundred Santa Susana Pass Road is tucked up in the Santa Susanas north of Los Angeles, off what is now called the Ronald Reagan Freeway. Back in 1941, when George was persuading Helen to move again, taking her knobby hand in his, begging her to uproot the tendrils she’d so far managed to anchor into the loose beige sand of Manhattan Beach—Just a bit east this time, sweet pea—the city of Chatsworth was little more than a Baptist church, a dirt-clogged filling station, and the Palomino Horse Association’s main stables, birthplace of Mr. Ed. Years later, in 1961, my father, still a boy, would start a wildfire in the hills above the PHA stables. He would be eleven, crouched in the dry brush, sneaking a cigarette. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

At the heart of the ranch was a movie set, a thoroughfare of a Western boomtown: bank, saloon, blacksmith, wood-planked boardwalk, side streets and alleys, a jail. Perhaps the set dazzled Helen. Perhaps she—a prematurely arthritic woman—recalled the aching cold of Pennsylvania winters. Perhaps she spoiled her husband, as her children claim. Whatever the reason, Helen laid her hand on her husband’s brow and said, “All right, George.” And though by all accounts Helen came to like the ranch, on the day George took her out to view the property for the first time her journal reads:

The property is quite expansive, surrounded by mountains.

G. giddy as a boy. Not such a view as the beach, though. The road out is windy and narrow, sheer canyon walls on either side. Seems I am to be once again separated from the sea. And what a brief affair it was! Looking west I felt a twinge like something had been taken from me, something a part of me but never truly mine.

Within a week of the Spahns’ move up to 1200 Santa Susana Pass Road, Bottles the cat ran away.

But George was more adaptable than Bottles, and luckier. In 1941, Westerns were still Hollywood’s bread and butter. George ran his movie set like he’d run his dairy ranch, building strong relationships with decision makers, underpricing the competition. It certainly didn’t hurt business when Malibu Bluff State Recreation Area annexed Trancas Canyon and sold off its many sets, making Spahn’s Ranch the only privately owned—and therefore zero-permit—outdoor set for seventy-five miles. The Spahns enjoyed a steady stream of business from the major studios, charging them a pretty penny to rent horses and shoot films at the ranch, among them High Noon, The Comstock Boys, and David O. Selznick’s 1946 classic Duel in the Sun, starring Gregory Peck. TV shows were also shot at the ranch, including most episodes of The Lone Ranger and—before Warner Brothers, coaxed by Nevada’s tax incentives and the habits of its big-name directors, moved production to the Ponderosa Ranch at Lake Tahoe—Bonanza.

We might start at my mother’s first memory: It’s 1962. She is three. She sits on her stepfather’s lap on a plastic lawn chair on the roof of their trailer. Her older brother and sister sit cross-legged on a bath towel they’ve laid atop the chintzy two-tab roof, the terry cloth dimpling their skin. They each wear a pair of their mother’s—my grandmother’s—oversize Jackie O. sunglasses. It is dusk; in the eastern sky stars are coming into view—yes, back then you could still see stars over Las Vegas—but the family faces northwest, as do their neighbors and the teenage boys hired to cut and water the grass at the new golf courses and the city bus drivers who have pulled over to the side of the roads and the tourists up in their hotel rooms with their faces pressed to the windows. As does the whole city.

Excerpted from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. Copyright © 2012 by Claire Vaye Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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