Book on California desert murders resonates 20 years later – Marin Independent Journal


“The concern here is the Mojave Desert, the dry baptismal font of national consciousness, the mythological cradle of America. It takes a great white-hearted desert to fuel the pursuit of happiness, vast expanses of emptiness to suggest the world can be possessed like an oyster, extreme pictures of beauty to erase any memory of bad news. “Good day!” the Mojave Desert tells the story of the crossing parade – the Donner Party, the buried treasure hunters, the cowboys, the ranchers, the people rushing for Hollywood gold – “Good luck!” Think positively! “

Ruth Nolan grew up in the Mojave Desert and now teaches creative writing at the College of the Desert. (Courtesy of Pablo Aguilar)

So begins the first pages of famous desert / western writer Deanne Stillman “29 Palms: A True Story of Murder, the Marines and the Mojave. First published in 2001, it rocked the small desert town of Twentynine Palms. It is the story of two girls who were killed in 1991 by a Marine after the Gulf War, their circle of friends diversified, the promise of California and the giant earthquake amid live-fire drills that followed the incident.It is also the story of a difficult quest for justice in a rural county that historically ignored the rights of women and those living in poverty and on the fringes of society. A book that led Stillman on a 10-year road of in-depth research with locals, law enforcement and the legal system , a persistent journey that sometimes put his own safety at risk.

Over the past two decades, “29 Palms: A True Story of Murder, the Marines, and the Mojave” has become a cult classic that legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson has called “A Strange and Brilliant Story of an American Writer.” important. The Los Angeles Times named it best book of the year 2001. In 2020, it was chosen as a film by Anthony Mastromauro, who produced “The Old Man & the Gun” with Robert Redford, and recently the singer. -Composer Tony Gilkyson (formerly of X and Dave Alvin) wrote some lovely new songs based on the events of the story. This year the book, which has been reprinted several times, remains a popular and enduring read, and is now discovered by a whole new generation of desert readers and true crime buffs.

Years before the #MeToo movement, a growing spotlight on rape culture and a growing push for social, gender and racial equality, in the United States, his book was prescient and years ahead of the how he helped give voice to the murdered and missing women and the oppressed and marginalized in our society. In recent years, several high-profile cases of missing and murdered women in the Twentynine Palms / Morongo Basin area have demonstrated that this vast area often presents unique dangers for women and people of color.

In sharp juxtaposition to the disturbing events and the uphill struggle for justice that Stillman recounts, “29 Palms: Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, the Marines, and the Mojave” powerfully portrays the magnificent beauty and lure of the wilderness. of Mojave itself, which now attracts millions of visitors each year passing through towns like Twentynine Palms – the northeast gateway to legendary Joshua Tree National Park and also the site of the Corps’ largest base. United States Marines to the world – with little connection or understanding of life’s challenges for many who live in this place, whether as a Marine, a member of a military family, or on the fringes of the company that leads a difficult life in this historically difficult city.

It is an important book that presents itself, 20 years after its first publication date in 2001, as a true legendary and enduring detective book which has earned its place in both the wider literary vernacular and in the traditions of the desert. from Mojave. More than that, as countless numbers continue to flee Los Angeles and other major cities to seek solitude and renewal in Twentynine Palms and neighboring desert communities, fueled by the ongoing pandemic and escalation. housing costs, Stillman’s book serves as a haunting model that no matter how attractive the desert is, all is not always gold in the wilderness, as one might imagine.

Ruth Nolan grew up in the Mojave Desert and now teaches creative writing at the College of the Desert. She is a desert ecologist and author and editor of “No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts”.

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