Having lived in Southern California for several decades, I’m always interested in mystery/thriller series that take place in that area. When I saw Fields of Wrath by Mark Wheaton in my Amazon Prime selections list, it not only interested me because it takes place in the agricultural area near Ventura but because it deals with migrant farm workers. Slavery may have been outlawed in the mid 1800’s but some migrant farm workers in different parts of the U.S. are still not that far from slaves.
Fields of Wrath is Book #1 in a new mystery/thriller series featuring ex-gang member Luis Chavez, a newly ordained Los Angeles priest. Given that Cesar Chavez was a driving force in getting better working conditions for migrant farm workers, this main character’s last name seems only fitting. Most of you already know that I like novels which don’t just provide a gripping story but also provide a window into the lives of people about whom you may be unaware, except on a superficial level. Fields of Wrath provides that kind of window as well as one hell of a nail-biting read. Sound interesting?
“He [Santiago] heard a noise from the other room.
‘I’m in the shower!’ he called in Spanish.
As he squirted a dollop of shampoo into his hand, the door burst open.
Before he could finish, two men in the uniforms of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department – one white, one Hispanic – yanked him out. He kicked and flailed, but two swift elbows to the temple and he was out like a light.”
“The shooter exhaled, waited until the woman was three steps from the driver’s door of her blue Civic, and pulled the trigger. The bullet took so long to reach her, he monetarily wondered if he’d missed.
Impossible, he thought.
Half a second later she was lifted off her feet and propelled forward into the car. He chambered a second round and fired again…He swung the barrel around, catching sight of a figure running through Annie’s backyard. He turned the night vision back on as whoever it was flung open the back gate and emerged into the arroyo behind Annie’s walled neighborhood.
It was another woman…The woman ran along the back wall in a straight line. This told him she had no idea anyone was aiming at her. It wasn’t even sporting.”
Father Luis Chavez grew up on the mean streets of Los Angeles. As a gang member, he could have easily become just another prison or murder statistic. Instead, he found a calling in the Catholic Church and became a priest. It was definitely not easy but he gives thanks every day that he chose that path. Now he’s being tested because his first posting as an apprentice priest is back in Los Angeles. He’s going to have to be careful to stay away from the temptations he knows his old gang members will throw his way to try to persuade him to fall back into that life. He can only hope he’ll be strong enough to stick to his convictions and values, i.e., the right path for him, a path where he can make a positive difference in his church and his community.
“Near monastic solitude forced a person to confront himself as well as his relationship with the ever-present divine. Most of the time this was just fine for Luis. But he was an LA kid. Sometimes the voice of El Cucuy on AM 690 was all it took to make him feel more connected to his roots and less defined by the collar around his neck.
…Luis had been in his fifth year at the St. Robert Bellarmine Seminary in upstate New York when he learned St. Augustine’s was ready for him. Though they gave him the opportunity to stay at St. Bellarmine for up to another year, he made the move in six weeks.”
“Before Willans [Luis’ mentor] could dismiss him, there came a frantic knock on the door.
‘It’s one of the boys from the baseball team,’ Erna called out. ‘Says we need to call an ambulance immediately.’
‘Is one of the boys hurt? Willans asked, springing to his feet.
‘No, but there’s an injured woman in the dugout. They think she’s been shot.’”
An injured young woman named Odilia, who only speaks Zapotec, shows up at the local parish seeking sanctuary. She tells Luis a horrific story about what is happening to migrant workers in the farm fields near Ventura, just north of Los Angeles. It’s obvious just looking at her that she has been through hell and back. She and a friend named Santiago had been scheduled to meet with the Los Angeles DA’s office to provide testimony but that friend has disappeared and she fears he is dead, along with her DA office contact, which means she also quite rightly fears for her own life.
As he listens and translates her story for Father Willans, Father Luis is not just appalled by what she relays but he becomes very troubled by it. I’d call this moment the beginning of his crisis of conscience, the kind of crisis that strikes so deep it can’t be ignored no matter how hard you try. He’s torn about what to do because he’s unsure the church will look kindly on him getting involved in a secular matter; however, standing by while he knows people are being abused and possibly worse is in direct conflict with his hard-won beliefs and values. This is why he became a priest, to better people’s lives and to be a living tool to make the world a better place for everyone.
When the young woman is kidnapped from the church, Luis knows her life is in peril and he’s can’t just stand by and do nothing. He agrees to go undercover and work with authorities to try to find the girl and unravel what’s really going on at one of the biggest agricultural operations in Ventura County. He’s got the survival skills he learned as a gang member and a steel-like determination to get to the bottom of this mystery, but has he underestimated how vast the tentacles of this conspiracy have spread not just through the corporate farming community but through the powerful political community as well? Soon he will learn he may find it’s even harder to survive as an undercover migrant farm worker than it was as a tough East LA gang member. And will his decision risk his calling in a very bureaucratic church hierarchy that doesn’t normally tolerate outliers?
Luis Chavez is a very interesting and sympathetic character. I liked him immensely from the beginning, possibly because I could relate to his need to follow his deeply seated values despite outside pressures. He would definitely pass the face-in-the-mirror test of being true to himself. I also really liked his LA parish mentor, who I haven’t mentioned in the synopsis. I’m going to let him be a pleasant surprise. There are other wonderful characters and some truly horrific villains (corporate, political, and just bigoted individuals) of all kinds. Nothing this awful can happen without overt collusion and those people who turn their backs because they don’t want to see what’s going on. And all of the “good” guys don’t have altruistic motives either…just like in real life. That makes this a much more realistic picture of the real push-pull nature and conditions of migrant farm workers in this country.
I’ll be honest – I didn’t expect a lot from Fields of Wrath when I chose to read it; however, I was drawn into it quickly and was very pleased to find that Mark Wheaton has done his homework. He presented an uncomfortable at times but realistic picture of the industrialized nature of food production in the 21st century, as well as the conditions under which often undocumented farm workers plant and harvest that food. They’re human beings but they are treated by some as if they are mere objects to be used and discarded. No matter your thoughts about undocumented workers or immigration issues, no one deserves to be treated like an object, and animal, or a slave IMHO.
Getting off my soapbox because no matter how you feel about those issues, this is one hell of a rollercoaster ride with lots of OMG moments. I can’t wait to find out what kind of trouble Father Luis gets into in Book #2 in this series, City of Strangers, which is scheduled to be published in September 2016!
Can’t wait to read Fields of Wrath? It’s available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller (and is a free e-read for Kindle Unlimited members). Click on the link below and you can have it to read immediately!
I’d love to get your comments on Fields of Wrath, Mark Wheaton and/or his other work, and/or this review.