Art & Culture

In new novel, acclaimed author Dave Eggers draws inspiration from T.S. Hawkins’ story

New York Times' best-selling author and the great-great grandson of one of Hollister's founding fathers, recently published a novel about a woman's quest for meaning and purpose, while starting over in Alaska
Heroes of the Frontier.jpg
12.png

Bloodied and injured, Josie—the 40-year-old, single mother of two—is making her way across a mound of rubble deposited from an avalanche. Outstretched and shirtless, she is on her back, staring into a rain-soaked sky. Having reached the other side, 8-year-old Paul and 5-year-old Ana, call out to their mother, “Almost there. Almost there.”

In Dave Eggers’ new novel, Heroes of the Frontier, Josie’s destination lies beyond reuniting with her children on a mountain trail in northern Alaska.

In a phone interview with BenitoLink last month, the New York Times’ best-selling author stated that the goal of the protagonist in his seventh novel is “finding a new and better version of herself” in the last of America’s “ultimate frontier.”

Josie’s journey begins in Ohio, where she is leaving behind a past rife with malaise and faces that she hopes to soon forget.

Her parents' drug addiction and the scandal they were embroiled in overshadows her childhood.

The once idyllic suburb where she has made a home for her children seethes with anger and violence.

A former patient has won a legal settlement against her—Josie’s career as a dentist is over.

An idealistic 19-year-old, whom she encouraged to join the military, is dead, killed in action while serving in Afghanistan.

Her children’s deadbeat father phones from Florida. He wants Paul and Ana to meet his future wife and in-laws.

Refusing to let her children be part of Carl’s machinations, she decides to flee the lower 48.

Eggers explained that the character wants to “escape and disappear” from this life.

And he writes in Heroes of the Frontier that Alaska, the “land of mountains and light,” is where she decides to go. 

It is here, Josie believes, that people of substance and courage live. And it is here that she, Paul, and Ana will start over.

Eggers has a personal familiarity with individuals, like Josie. People who distance themselves from past by charting a new course for their future, often into unknown lands.

His paternal, great-great grandfather was Thomas Samuel (T.S.) Hawkins, one of Hollister’s founding fathers.

In 1860, the highly ambitious and determined Hawkins left his home in Missouri for California. 

The once-poor plow boy endured failure and tragedy before becoming a prominent Hollister businessman and the county’s biggest champion.

His legacy was cemented in a hospital that he founded in memory of his beloved granddaughter Hazel Hawkins, who died in 1902 at the age of 9. 

In 1913, T.S. Hawkins self-published his autobiography, Some Recollections of a Busy Life. Only 300 copies were printed, given as gifts to family and friends.

Last year, McSweeny’s, a San Francisco-based publishing company founded by Eggers, reissued 2,000 copies of Hawkins’ book.

In an email to BenitoLink at the time, Eggers stated that he hoped the book would “remind readers of the sacrifices and heroism of his [Hawkins’] generation.”

Eggers explained in the interview that he drew upon Hawkins’ story when writing Heroes of the Frontier.

“Hawkins’ book definitely informed this book, especially the matter-of-fact telling of his crossing into California,” he said.

In Eggers’ story, Josie, Paul, and Ana fly into Anchorage. In the comforts of a decrepit, rented RV, the three begin making their way through the state.

In the rearview mirror are ghosts from Josie’s past, and the flames from wildfires scorching the Alaskan landscape that force the Chateau northward.

Along the way, Josie gets tipsy on Pinot, replaying scenes from her life often to musical soundtracks she heard as a child.

She laments that she knows nothing about her ancestry or family’s history. “Blank,” is how Eggers writes of her ignorance.

A long overdue reunion with Sam, a sister of sorts, is fleeting and lands her in the hospital.

Josie regrets the nine years spent with Carl, a man-child who filled his time feigning responsibility.

There is no map that guides Josie as she steers the Chateau along unfamiliar roadway, only the self-doubt she carries about her parenting. 

As the RV climbs higher and deeper into the rugged environs, a crystalline image of what she wants for Paul and Ana begins to form.

“Josie wants her kids to be fully independent and brave, while having mastery of the natural world,” Eggers said.

But can she be the one to nurture these qualities?

The answer is found halfway up a trail toward a mountain lake.

Ill-prepared for the seismic thunderstorm that has trapped her family, Josie encourages Paul and Ana to be brave, guiding them through the pouring rain, deafening sounds, and tree-felling lightning strikes.

An avalanche suddenly becomes an opportunity rather than an impediment to her family’s progress.

Eggers explained to BenitoLink that unlike his other novels, which were “driven by an event or an issue,” his new work is propelled by Josie’s quest for meaning and purpose.

But is Josie a hero of the frontier, as the book’s title suggests?

The author believes she is. 

“Josie definitely finds a more braver version of herself.” he said. 

But he qualified his response with an explanation of what being a “hero of the frontier” has meant throughout American history.

“There’s been different versions of it over time. First, there were the conquerors, followed by the settlers, and later the pioneers. We have a better nuanced sense of the phrase today,” he noted.

Eggers admitted that, like Josie, he grew up “blank,” knowing very little about the Hawkins side of his family tree or of his great-great grandfather’s role in creating a town and establishing a then-state-of-the-art medical facility.

Following in Hawkins’ footsteps, Eggers moved out West from Illinois in the early 1990s.

His first visit to Hollister occurred in 1992, when he and his younger brother “Toph" (Christopher)—immortalized in Eggers’ critically-acclaimed memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—walked the town, taking pictures.

Eggers has returned numerous times since then, most recently in May when he attended a luncheon honoring the Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital’s Auxiliary.

With each visit, he feels a greater connection to and gains a better appreciation for the area where his family planted its roots.

And while he defers to readers to make sense of his new novel, he is unequivocal about what he wants San Benito County residents to understand about the region.

“They often don’t realize how beautiful a place this is: Its unspoiled, golden hills; its many ways of life-coexisting; and its rich history. Its livable and more balanced than where I live [in San Francisco], he said, adding, “I love it so much that in another life I would live here."

Maybe one day Eggers will load his family in a Winnebago, head south, and start over.

 

Heroes of the Frontier By Dave Eggers; 385 pages; Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95.

Click here to read an excerpt from Eggers' new novel, "Heroes of the Frontier"

Click here to purchase a copy of T.S. Hawkins' re-printed autobiography, "Some Recollections of a Busy Life."

On Monday, Aug. 29, Eggers will pay a visit to the bookstore, Book Passage, in Corte Madera. The event begins at 7 p.m.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

Frank Pérez

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. For over two decades, I've been a faculty member at San Benito High School, where I teach world history, Mexican-American history, and Ethnic Studies. I've been reporting for BenitoLink since 2015. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.