“The concern here is the Mojave Desert, the dry baptismal font of national consciousness, America’s mythological birthplace. , extreme beauty pageants to wipe out all memory of bad news. “Have a good day!” and good luck! Think positively!”
Then start the introductory pages of acclaimed desert / western author Deanne Stillman’s “29 Palms: A True Story of Murder, the Marines, and the Mojave.” First released in 2001, it rocked the small desert town of Twentynine Palms to its core. It’s the story of two girls who were killed in 1991 by a Marine after the Gulf War, their diverse circle of friends, the promise of California and the giant earthquake in the middle of live-fire drills after the incident. It is also the story of a difficult search for justice in a rural area that has historically overlooked the rights of women and those living in poverty and along the edge of society. A book that took Stillman down a 10-year path with deep research done with the locals, law enforcement and the justice system, an ongoing journey that sometimes endangered her own safety.
Over the past two decades, “29 Palms: A True Story of Murder, the Marines and the Mojave” has grown into a cult classic status, which legendary author Hunter S. Thompson called “A Strange and Ingenious Story by an Important American Author.” The Los Angeles Times named it the best book of the year in 2001. In 2020, it was voted a film by Anthony Mastromauro, who produced “The Old Man & the Gun” with Robert Redford, and most recently songwriter Tony Gilkyson (formerly of X and Dave Alvin) has written some beautiful new songs based on the events of history.This year, the book, which has been reprinted several times, is still popular and sustained reading, and it is now being discovered by a whole new generation of both desert readers and true-crime enthusiasts .
Years ahead of the #MeToo movement, a growing spotlight on rape culture and a growing push for social, gender and racial equality in the United States, his book has been foresighted and years ahead of its time in how it has helped provide voice to murdered and missing women and the oppressed and marginalized in our society. In the last few years alone, several high-profile cases of missing and murdered women in the Twentynine Palms / Morongo Basin region have shown that this vast region does not infrequently pose unique dangers to women and the colored.
In sharp contrast to the troubling events and difficult struggle for justice that Stillman chronicles, “29 Palms: Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, the Marines and the Mojave” powerfully depicts the magnificent beauty and allure of the Mojave Desert itself, which now lures millions of visitors each year who pass through cities like Twentynine Palms – the northeast gate to the legendary Joshua Tree National Park and also the site of the largest US Marine Corps base in the world – with little connection to or understanding of life’s challenges for many of those who call this are home, whether they are Marines or part of a military family or someone on the fringes of society living a hard life in this historically tough city.
It is an important book that stands, 20 years after its first publication date in 2001, as a lasting and legendary true crime book that has earned its place in both the broader literary language and the Mojave Desert. More than that, while countless people continue to flee Los Angeles and other major cities to seek solitude and renewal in Twentynine Palms and adjacent desert communities, driven by the ongoing pandemic and escalating housing costs, Stillman’s book serves as a haunted template, there no matter what the lure of the desert is, not everything is always gold in the desert as one might imagine.
Ruth Nolan grew up in the Mojave Desert and now teaches creative writing at the College of the Desert. She is a desert conservator and author and editor of “No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts.”