Novelist weaves local history and fiction as a vehicle for finding truth in ‘The Curse of Santa Cruz’
Stephanie Michel’s new novel opens with a character encountering thousands of frenzied birds descending upon Santa Cruz—a depiction of an actual event which took place in 1961. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported on the occurrence, which later became the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film, The Birds. That grizzly scene serves as the precursor to many historic events woven into Michel’s novel, “The Curse of Santa Cruz.”
When Michel, who now lives in Kauai, moved to Santa Cruz in the early 2000s she felt that she had found the most beautiful place on earth. She moved here for love, and with her new husband settled into a house on the west side.
Shortly after arriving, Michel attended a party that would alter the course of her life over the next several years. A fellow guest told her that Santa Cruz was cursed. Though a few other people would eventually tell her the same thing, she says no one ever provided any details.
Intrigued, Michel began researching the history of Santa Cruz’s founding, and the experiences of immigrants and the Native Americans who lived here, including the Italians, the Chinese and the original inhabitants, the Ohlones. She eventually turned her research into the historical backdrop for her novel.
“What I wanted to do was give voice to the Ohlone Indians and try to show people … what a day in the life might really be like,” says Michel. “How can you put any emotional attachment to this civilization if you can’t relate them?”
Whether or not the curse is real—Michel says it’s an Indian legend that is revealed in the book—seems less important to her than its role as a metaphor for people to examine their own lives and society at large.
Michel enlisted the help of Patrick Orozco of the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council for part of her novel research. “He met with me countless times and shared with me the customs and traditions of his people,” says Michel. “He took me to sacred sites and explained why things were the way they were, and why they were where they were.”
The storyline revolves around a fictional group of students in the same history class, and takes place in modern day Santa Cruz.
“I thought it would give it a fresh start to see if we could put these historical happenings in the context of a history class, (and) a group of kids,” says Michel, who had originally devised the story as a screenplay. “Kind of like the Breakfast Club group of kids, they’re kind of funky and they have their own personal issues they all needed to work through, that were detrimental to their own well-being.”
Michel says the kids in the story learn about the injustices that occurred in the history of Santa Cruz, and how they must be acknowledged and rectified. In doing so, the students learn to face the truths in their own lives.
As a homage to two local authors and a third from Berkeley, the history teacher in Michel’s novel directs her students to read “The Ohlone Way” by Malcolm Margolin, “Santa Cruz is in the Heart” by Geoffrey Dunn, and “Chinese Gold,” by Sandy Lydon—three books Michel says she could not have completed her novel without. “I believe those three books should be required to be read, if not in all of California [schools], at least in Santa Cruz County,” she adds.
While her own mother is part Sami Indian, Michel says that’s not the primary reason for her interest in telling the stories of Native Americans.
“When we got here, we basically took what we wanted and we lied, and made promises we didn’t keep,” say Michel, referring to Americans in general. “I believe in ancestral karma. There’s something I feel happened that was very wrong and was never made right.”
Michel stills feels that Santa Cruz is the most beautiful place on earth. She’s also quick to point out that she’s not singling out Santa Cruz as being worse than any other place with a history of abuse toward Native Americans—and she finds parallels to the sovereignty issues faced by the indigenous peoples of Hawaii. She simply found Santa Cruz and its history to be a fitting setting for the story, and for the message she hopes people will take from it.
“Once you’re willing to get brutally honest with yourself and see what’s gone on around us, the truth will set you free,” says Michel. “But if we keep continuing to live the lie about what we do to each other and how we treat each other, then nothing’s going to change.”
For more information about “The Curse of Santa Cruz” and to purchase a copy, visit http://www.thecurseofsantacruz.com. The book will also be available at Bookshop Santa Cruz beginning Aug. 15.