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Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave
ISBN: 0380794012
By Deanne Stillman
Review by: Chauna Craig

06/06/05

Deanne Stillman’s account of two young women murdered by a Marine in a small California town attracted me for three reasons: 1) I confess to the guilty pleasure of gawking at true-crime documentaries on Crime TV, 2) I love nonfiction as a literary art form, and 3) I was raised in Great Falls, Montana where the combination of an air force base with young, single men looking for fun and local girls looking for a better life often exploded, leaving casualties, emotional and otherwise. I felt I would connect with this book on many levels, and I did.

As a writer, I appreciated Stillman’s deft handling of the chronology and multiple points of view of her story. She maintains suspense by opening her narrative with the much-delayed trial of Valentine Underwood, the accused Marine, and the ways in which Debie McMaster, mother of the sixteen-year-old victim, Mandi, prepares herself for all the wounds the trial will re-open. From there, she weaves the histories of the victims, Mandi Scott and Rosie Ortega, and the histories of family, friends, and lovers into a narrative that attempts to explore how race, gender, class and the expectations of all of these influence our choices, fates, and opportunities, especially for justice. I appreciated the attention given to these young women’s lives and deaths as something more than grim statistics, yet I also felt uncomfortable with the way the author inscribes them with sensationalized notions of the desert working-class doomed to promiscuity, drug abuse, and inevitable violence. Some of what I view as problematic is an effect of Stillman’s approach, which owes an enormous debt to Truman Capote and his famous literary true-crime novel In Cold Blood. Ascribing motives, hopes, fears, and moment-by-moment thoughts to real “characters” in recreated scenes has always struck me as taking license (something that is necessary to some extent with creative nonfiction), and doing so with people whose lives the author, who writes for Rolling Stone and The New York Times, seems unable to convey from a full, “inside” perspective was all the more disappointing. Somehow almost all of the people Stillman wrote about ended up seeming tragic and hopelessly entwined in circumstances they couldn’t understand, and I wasn’t satisfied with that conclusion.

While I often found the writing in Twentynine Palms compelling and sensual (I felt transported at times, longing for the West I left years ago), I cringed at overwritten passages like this one: “The older woman’s laugh was laced with a lifetime of tar and nicotine. At the end of the laugh, she coughed up some phlegm, swallowed it, and sucked on the coffin nail again” (146). These “hard-boiled” stylistic choices pepper the book and detract at times from the story itself.

Still, flaws aside, Twentynine Palms is a haunting and necessary book, one that kept me reading and thinking, even when my conclusions differed from the author’s.

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