Many in the region may remember the Central Valley farmworker strikes of the 1960s and 1970s that led to 17 million Americans boycotting the purchase of table grapes to show solidarity with Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers.
For Oakland novelist and lawyer Barbara Rhine, those combative days in California’s fertile fields were both “exhilarating and terrifying,” when, as a 29-year-old, she signed on as an attorney with the UFW as the Valley became a hotbed of dissent and anger.
Rhine has fictionalized that period in her first mystery novel, “Tell No Lies,” out this month. The thriller traces the story of James, a black man who is on the run from police and caught up in a love triangle with a farmworker organizer, who’s in the midst of planning a march, and a Berkeley feminist he’s known for years.
Rhine will read from her book at Sacramento’s Time Tested Books at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Before becoming involved with the UFW, Rhine had been working in the Bay Area as a carpenter. She said she had felt “disillusioned” by UC Berkeley’s “conservative” Boalt School of Law, where she had graduated.
“I was a little hippie chick, and then this kind of thing came along,” Rhine said. “I was always very political. ... It made perfect sense that I ended up taking the legal skills to be a union lawyer.”
Led by Chavez, Delores Huerta and attorney Jerry Cohen on the courtroom front, the UFW was almost a decade into a battle over better working conditions and just recently had become part of the AFL-CIO.
During that pivotal summer of 1973 when Rhine moved to Livingston in Merced County, a contract with table-grape growers expired, and the growers signed a new deal with the Teamsters to represent workers in an effort to keep Chavez and his community-based organizers out.
Chavez and the UFW fought back with a months-long strike. Despite Chavez’s commitment to non-violence (he was a follower of Gandhi), more than 3,500 strikers were arrested and violence was rampant. Rhine was responsible for defending UFW strikers arrested on the picket line and migrant camp workers who faced eviction.
“The flavor of the time, people on the move, it just fascinated me,” she said, comparing it to the civil rights struggles in the South. “It was super exciting, very demanding.”
With an insider’s view, Rhine’s novel reminds readers about a tumultuous period in California’s history when farmworkers were having dramatic showdowns with growers and mixed-raced couples weren’t a common sight.
“A lot of the material in the novel was based on a march against Gallo,” she said. “It’s fiction and a novel. ... I created a fictional plot that brought together the black power movement and the feminist movement and the farmworker movement.”
Rhine, the daughter of union activists, went on to teach law at Golden Gate University. She now has a private practice representing children in custody battles, but said writing has always been a passion.
“You take everything you know and mix and match,” she said of the writing process. “When you’re alive during times like that, it was just incandescent ... so it’s worth writing a novel about (it).”
Tell No Lies
What: Author Barbara Rhine reads from her new thriller set during the Central Valley farmworker strikes of the ’60s and ’70s.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Time Tested Books, 1114 21st St., Sacramento
Information: (916) 447-5696; timetestedbooks.net