The Toughest Kid We Knew: The Old New West



Author portrait by Madeline Bergon

California’s Central Valley has produced its share of writers—Maxine Hong Kingston, Leonard Gardner, Joan Didion, and most famously John Steinbeck, who set much of The Grapes of Wrath in the Valley. Place matters to them all, but none quite so much as Bergon, who might legitimately be called the poet laureate of the Central Valley. His powerful evocations reveal how distinctive and interesting it truly was during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Bergon’s goal is to see Valley people whole, to detail daily experience, and he does it through memory, using his own upbringing to capture the rhythms of community life. It is a fine, vivid book.

ELLIOTT J. GORN, Western American Literature, Winter 2021

“In elegant prose, Frank Bergon has conjured a complex portrait of the San Joaquin Valley of California during the mid-1950s and beyond, where some ninety distinct ethnic communities lived together for a century, his own valley family being Basque as were his beloved grandparents in Nevada. The Toughest Kid We Knew is one of the best literary memoirs written, focusing on the particular while evoking universal human experience.”

ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ, author of Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie

“These essays are masterfully crafted. Frank Bergon has a real strength for giving just the right details for us to get a sense of the people he writes about, with a touch of humor, a touch of sadness. As one who has traveled through the San Joaquin Valley several times, but has never read a memoir from there, I found the book captivating, deepening my knowledge of the place and its history.”

DARYL FARMER, author of Where We Land: Stories

The Toughest Kid We Knew is a magnificent book about the American West and a multigenerational family’s ties to its ancestral homeland and to the daunting land of the San Joaquin Valley. Frank Bergon has delivered a literary bounty. I don’t think a page went by without an observation, insight, or detail that somehow sparked my imagination or stayed with me long after I’d turned the page. I loved spending time with these remarkable people in this unforgettable place.”

MEGHAN DAUM, author of The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars

”If you have known me since my Vassar Days, you probably have heard me gush & joke about my writing professor & loyal, affirming friend Frank Bergon. He’s got really cool hair, he married very well & he didn’t put up with my pseudo-rebellious nonsense. For these reasons, along with his stunning storytelling ability, I love him immensely. It’s the funniest thing, but I never thought a Basque American lover of the West would or could write such poetic, inclusive words so often that speak directly to me, but his work always has and always does. His latest book is a unique, visceral and fascinating memoir, The Toughest Kid We Knew. This memoir is eye-opening and beautiful; it taught me more about the American West & the depth of American commonalities than I expected. In it, I can see a better version of the West than I ever did reading Steinbeck, and all the essential working hands that built the oases I know I have taken for granted in the past. Also, his grandpa’s name is Prosper & they ate Kix together—and the intimacy of details like that during the separateness of this timefeels life-affirming and sweet. Anyway, I hope you’ll get a copy. (That’s him on the cover, with the bangs.) 

— JOSHUNDA SANDERS, author of I Can Write the World

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