A majority of Angelenos often pack themselves into a car to go out and explore the city, unknowingly zooming past many points of interest just a stone’s throw away from their residences. One of those overlooked gems is probably the Los Angeles River. Though recent news and major developments along the waterway have renewed interest in this historic L.A. feature, many still don’t take the time to explore the river in their backyards. A new book set along the waterway retells a classic story with a contemporary twist, perhaps opening readers’ eyes to a different Los Angeles.
Writer Tim DeRoche and artist Daniel Gonzalez collaborated on “The Ballad of Huck and Miguel,” a reinterpretation of the classic Mark Twain novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Amidst the novel’s pages, Angelenos will find familiar narratives about the city’s neighborhoods along with illustrations that accompany these colorful descriptions.
“The Ballad of Huck and Miguel” follows Huck as he escapes from an abusive father and traverses the city by way of the L.A. River. He meets Miguel, an undocumented immigrant that serves as the re-imagined stand-in for Jim. The novel pays tribute to the original story, but also bridges past with present by taking a modern-day approach to the idea of an open-ended adventure of a kid out in the world alone (in this case, exploring areas like Compton).
Although DeRoche wrote the manuscript before meeting Gonzalez, he remained open to the artist’s input on the story — specifically when it came to the character of Miguel. Many of Gonzalez’s family members worked with horses, as Miguel does. DeRoche doesn’t speak Spanish, so Gonzalez helped him with some of the dialogue. While the novel prominently features an undocumented immigrant as a main character, DeRoche maintains that the work is not meant as a political statement. It instead aims to recreate the journey of a young boy who leaves home.
“I think the reason people respond so much to the original Huck Finn is that Huck’s just this incredibly endearing kid,” said DeRoche. “He’s abused, but he's resilient. He's incredibly observant … as a kid he's seeing things that adults don't see.”
DeRoche consulted with a Mark Twain scholar and considered the influence of the novel amidst American literature. The writer felt that to properly pay homage to the story, he needed to create a unique and carefully thought out piece.
“We could not do a cheap, bad looking book,” said DeRoche. “We needed a beautiful book that depicted the story in a beautiful way, and that was the only way I was going to feel comfortable putting something like this out into the world.”
The first edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” included illustrations by E.W. Kemble. For “The Ballad of Huck and Miguel,” Gonzalez created 45 original linocut prints. The resulting illustrations became an integral part of the story, not just a supplement to it. Gonzalez runs a printmaking and letterpress studio in Highland Park.
“I can't see the book without Daniel’s prints,” said DeRoche. “They helped me envision the story that I wrote.”
The linocut dates back to the 19th century and was popularized by artists like Albrecht Dürer. It requires careful attention to detail and a deep understanding of negative space; the process involves cutting into a block of material (usually wood) to create an overall composition. But the lines etched into this material then get inked over, and the space in between them ultimately creates the final printed image.
In Gonzalez’s capable hands, this classic technique becomes a means to capture the energy of Los Angeles. Thin lines and small squares come together to replicate the distinct architecture of Downtown skyscrapers. All-black shapes with just a few hints of white capture the massiveness of the mountains that often loom over the city’s landscape. Gonzalez gives his own twist to each scene, often coloring in the sky with thin lines that allude to the roiling tufts of cloud that break up L.A.’s blue sky (or, perhaps, the creeping smog that always thickens the air).
Gonzalez modeled the inside title page after the plaques along the bridge on the river. Researching the typeface of those plaques, he created something similar as a way to introduce the narrative and the fact that the river would play a large part in the story. He also reflected on the ecosystem of the river and how he could capture it.
“I just sat down and made a list and tried to choose not too many mammals and not too many reptiles,” said Gonzalez. “And just try to have a really well-balanced representation of the kind of wildlife that I’ve seen on the river on my walks and from my experience.”
During the process of working together on the novel, DeRoche and Gonzalez became consumed by the L.A. river — how it showcased the diversity of the city, the fact that so much wildlife lived along it in a sort of hidden ecosystem. For nine months, Gonzalez created original linocuts for the novel while a sense of nostalgia colored his process. Gonzalez grew up in Boyle Heights and remembers that when his parents needed to run errands Downtown, that meant a trip across the river.
“It's always like oh you're going to get to go outside of your bubble and experience something else,” said Gonzalez. “You're crossing the river — that means you're going someplace.”
If readers look closely enough, the novel also serves as a primer on the L.A. River and its history. Gonzalez, for example, references the origin of the Frogtown moniker. It alludes to the Western toads that often migrated into the river. Gonzalez also includes a nod to the L.A. river cats, popularized by artist Leo Limon starting in the 1960s.
DeRoche and Gonzalez continue to find inspiration in the L.A. River; Gonzalez hopes that his linocut prints will soon travel and be exhibited in various spaces. He currently offers box sets through his shop. In this modern retelling of a classic ballad, DeRoche gives Angelenos a chance to look more closely at the river and how L.A. intersects across its span.