Two new books by Central Coast natives take a personal approach to the past.
“Dune Child,” by Ella Thorp Ellis, recalls a childhood spent in the Oceano Dunes, while Clark Colahan’s “On the Banks of San Simeon Creek: Pioneers of San Simeon” delves into an ancestor’s connection to the region. In both cases, the authors demonstrate a heartfelt interest in the history of San Luis Obispo County and its inhabitants.
Here’s a closer look:
As a child growing up in the Oceano Dunes during the Great Depression, Ella Thorp Ellis rubbed elbows with such notables as Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and Edward Weston.
Her fascinating memoir details her time spent living among the Dunites at Moy Mell, a tiny, tightknit community of artists, authors and free spirits. Thorp moved there with her beautiful but troubled mother, Marion, and her father, Dunham, a former Hollywood agent who became editor of the influential literary arts magazine Dune Forum.
“Dune Child” opens in 1933, just before Ellis’s fifth birthday.
Over the next new years, young Ella overcomes an early bout with polio, faces childhood bullies and attends school while living with Dr. Rudy Gerber and his family in Oceano. Through her eyes, we observe her mother’s worsening mental illness and her parents’ crumbling marriage.
Descriptions of clamming and swimming in the Pacific Ocean are mixed with her memories of encounters with actress Marion Davies, Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba and Gavin Arthur, the grandson of former President Chester A. Arthur. (Ellis also includes several photos.)
“Dune Child” only covers five years of Ellis’ life, but the memoir is so rich with detail and emotion that it seems to span a much greater space.
‘On the Banks of San Simeon Creek: Pioneers of San Simeon’
A new book by Central Coast native Clark Colahan lends insight into the lives of California settlers in the 1860s, chronicling the experiences of his ancestor, Dr. E.A. Clark, through diary entries, letters and other historical documents.
The grandson of a prominent Ohio judge, Clark mined gold in Sierra County and farmed in San Jose before establishing a San Simeon Creek homestead in 1858.
As Colahan’s book shows, Clark and his family had to scrabble to survive — battling disease and drought while dedicating countless hours to such menial chores as mending fences, planting beans and trimming grape vines. Even leisure activities such as trout fishing and berry picking had an air of necessity about them.
Colahan depicts these daily struggles through the words of the settlers themselves, using narrative passages and extensive footnotes to identify prominent pioneers or provide context. His methodical approach can be attributed in part to his role as an emeritus professor of humanities and Spanish at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.
“On the Banks of San Simeon Creek” can be dry at times. However, the book’s reliance on personal narrative makes it auseful tool for history students of all stripes.