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‘Valley of the Moon’ a new take on old themes

Jack London’s novel “Valley of the Moon” describes the journey of a working-class couple from Oakland to a rural idyll in Glen Ellen, by way of labor strikes, boxing matches and an artist’s colony in Carmel. Though not one of the peripatetic writer’s most successful books, it gave Sonoma Valley the nickname by which it’s still known – and inspired another writer a full century later to write her own vision of the idyllic side of Sonoma.

“It was a beautiful fall day,” remembers Melanie Gideon of the germ of her novel “Valley of the Moon” (Ballantine/Random House), published this spring. “Arnold Drive was lined with foliage. I saw a sign on the side of the road that said ‘Welcome to the Valley of the Moon.’ I had never heard of the Valley of the Moon before, and I was immediately enchanted. There was just something really captivating about that.”

So captivating that she devoted the next four years to writing the book, which she freely describes as “a hybrid” – part science fiction, part romance, part family drama, part flashback to a history not so long ago. It’s her second novel for an adult readership, and has garnered an enthusiastic response.

Probably the most notable of the book’s several parts is the science fiction element – not like space aliens or “Star Wars,” but time-travel, an honorable subset of sci-fi. From H.G. Wells to Jack Finney, the genre explores the notion that passing through the veil of time leads not only to remarkable worlds, but self-discovery. One might also cite European folklore and fairy tales like “Sleeping Beauty.”

Gideon makes no excuses about her novel’s predecessors or inspirations. “I happened upon the movie ‘Brigadoon’ one Saturday morning,” she reminisced during a call from her family cabin in Maine earlier this week. “Gene Kelly is hunting in the Scottish highlands and sees a village rising up out of the mist.” He enters the village, and finds its inhabitants “dressed in an old-fashioned way and acting strangely.” Of course, he falls in love with a highlands lass – Cyd Charisse – but he can’t stay in the village to court her: every night that passes there is 100 years in the outside world.

A similar scenario underpins this year’s “Valley of the Moon,” though the century-in-a-night thing “just wouldn’t work for my book,” said Gideon. Instead, her story finds a young 1970s single mother taking a solo camping trip in Jack London State Historic Park (where camping is not allowed, at least in the real world) who awakens to find an enveloping fog, on the other side of which is a community lost in time, isolated by the Great Earthquake of 1906.

What results is not “just” a time-travel book, but a tale of a young woman’s own coming of age, of love measured by the full moon, and of the relationships between parents and children. “I think I used the supernatural event at the beginning to get at the deeper themes,” said Gideon.

She herself has an 18-year-old son, Ben, who is about to go off to college; the main character’s son is named Benno, and we follow him in the book from childhood to the verge of being an adult.

“Looking at my son, and seeing nesting dolls of all the different boys that he’s been in his life, contained in an 18-year-old – I just find it so rich and a great theme to mine as a writer.”

Still, she has fun with the time-travel element, and the references to C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” in particular show her indebtedness to the genre. The village in the fog is called Greengage, an agricultural utopian community of the sort that was not uncommon in Sonoma County at the turn of the last century: Fountaingrove and Altruria in Santa Rosa, Preston in Cloverdale, among others.

But it also draws on more recent hippie communes like the Chosen Family outside of Novato and West County’s Morningstar. Since the real time of the novel is the 1970s, it’s as much a back-to-the-land fantasy like Ernst Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” as it is a science-fiction novel: the Greengage community is emotionally and economically self-supporting, its nominal head a charismatic (but gentle and modest) English bloke named Joseph.

How the ‘70s-era single mom and the stuck-in-time community patriarch become a couple is, of course, one of the book’s threads. How they each become unstuck in time is only found in the roller-coaster last few pages, though it comes in a way you probably won’t predict. But that’s the thing about time-travel: you just never know what’s going to happen next.

“I think fundamentally it’s a story about parents and children. And about redemption and about loss, and of course about time,” said Gideon. “I think many of my books are dealing with that same issue, the idea of time and nostalgia.”

While “Valley of the Moon” is her second adult novel – she’s also penned three young adult books and a memoir – it’s quite possible her first, “Wife 22,” will be the breakout book for the 52-year-old writer. That one is in development for Working Title films, with none other than Julia Roberts attached as producer and, quite possibly, star. As for “Valley of the Moon,” says Gideon, “my agent is sending it out now. Fingers crossed.”

Gideon read from “Valley of the Moon” a couple weeks ago at Copperfield’s Santa Rosa store, and negotiations are underway for her to come to Readers’ Books in Sonoma. Right now she and her family are in Maine, spending a last summer together before young Ben goes off to Yale, and Gideon and her husband return to their Oakland home, where they’ve lived since 2000. “Once you move to the Bay Area it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else,” she said.

Then again, for a writer like Melanie Gideon, life is all about imagination.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.