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Tribes of Palos Verdes

Tribes of Palos Verdes

4.8 12
by Joy Nicholson

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Medina Mason is a defiant, awkward newcomer to the affluent beach community of Palos Verdes, California. As her parents' marriage disintegrates and her beloved brother falls prey to the temptations of drugs and the lunacy of their mother, Medina surfs to survive, finding a bitter solace in the rough comfort of the waves. This is the moving story of growing up


Medina Mason is a defiant, awkward newcomer to the affluent beach community of Palos Verdes, California. As her parents' marriage disintegrates and her beloved brother falls prey to the temptations of drugs and the lunacy of their mother, Medina surfs to survive, finding a bitter solace in the rough comfort of the waves. This is the moving story of growing up "different," of the love between siblings, and of one girl's power to save herself.

Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
YA-Medina Mason, Midwestern transplant to the surf and high-rolling economy of Southern California, narrates this first novel by a promising young author. The teen struggles with her former fashion-model mother who despises Medina's slenderness while eating herself into oblivion; a twin brother who sinks lower and lower into his attachment to grass and pills because of his mother's neurotic attachment to him; an absent father who doesn't hear his daughter's pleas for help; and her own maturing relationships with guys. The harsh and superficial exchanges among individuals ring true: Medina inhabits a world where surf is the only reliable power, a power that can be understood at least as well as the adults in her life. She divides her peers into "tribes"e.g., the towel girls (perfectly formed young women who never leave their beach towels), the "bottomfeeders" (lowlife guys who sell drugs on the beach and use strong-arm tactics to extract payment)but the microcosm of her own family occupies most of her emotional energy and readers' attention. Teens living east of California will not find Medina's world attractive and may wonder if that's all there is to the fabled land of surf. Her family, however, could live--and attempt to destroy one another--anywhere.Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Kirkus Reviews
First-novelist Nicholson, a native Californian, describes in scathing detail the treacheries behind the facade of upper-class Palos Verdes.

Medina and Jim, 14-year-old twins, move to the beach town from Michigan so that their cardiologist father can improve his career, eventually becoming the surgeon to the stars. Handsome, laid-back Jim adapts to the new environment, but independent Medina is less happy, finding solace only in the water. Alone in the surf, she can escape the pressures of beach-girl beauty, the superficiality of country club life, and the constant roar of her parents' fighting. Her father is caring and supportive, but rarely present, and her mother seems on the brink of a nervous breakdown—or worse. An ex- model, now a compulsive overeater, she changes out of her yellow bathrobe and leaves the house only to buy food. The greasy smell of her constant cooking permeates the place, while she, usually entombed in her bedroom, emotionally manipulates Jim, pitting him against Medina and her husband. Jim becomes his mother's "protector" and spends long days playing card games with her and watching TV. Nicholson depicts the subtle annihilation of his personality as he gradually becomes a conniver with his mother. When father moves out, life gets worse. Medina sleeps with an old druggie beach bum, Jim stumbles through each day increasingly stoned, and their mother gets even more desperate in her attempts to destroy her husband. Meanwhile, the author eerily catches the cloistered life of Palos Verdes—the adults pursuing high-powered careers and well-maintained lawns, the kids staying drunk or stoned. Medina begins innocently, connected to Jim with an unconquerable love, and she ends up alone and damaged (though a survivor).

A compelling, realistic view of the underbelly of affluent California life.

From the Publisher

“Nicholson captures the California-coast culture...Medina shows what it's like to feel '6 million years old' way before your time.” —Entertainment Weekly

“An inspiring portrait of a young woman unswayed by other people's pettiness.” —Mademoiselle

“Impressive...captures what it is to be young, intelligent, and very alone.” —US Magazine

“Nicholson's evocation of character, her ability to bring Medina fully to life, makes this work. She writes with snapshot immediacy...A writer to keep in mind.” —David Ulin, Salon Magazine

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.26(w) x 7.89(h) x 0.87(d)

Read an Excerpt


I'm almost fourteen, already in trouble at school, already been kissed. My breasts have formed into tiny peaks, and there they will stay, tiny, for the rest of my life.

My mother tells me people with tiny breasts are always selfish. She says this as she spreads peanut butter on angel food cake slices for lunch. I am looking out the window, counting the waves as they roll softly by, counting the minutes until I may be excused. But my mother goes on talking, looking at a point just over my two breasts and smiling. She talks about thinness, skimpiness, vanishing to the point of nothing.

"I used to be thin. But I overcame it," she insists. "It was all shit."

I am watching my mother eat. Crumbs are dripping from her mouth, a globule of peanut butter is stuck in her hair. Watching her chew, I am overcome.

Jim is my twin brother, with my green eyes. Except they are murkier, the color of the water in the tide pools below our house in Palos Verdes. Jim is beautiful. He has been my best friend for years, my only true friend. Together we watch the surfers rise from their bellies on a wave, gripping the rails of their surfboards, standing without falling. For years we've known what the other is thinking. We think about water.

At 4:30 there's a good cartoon on television. A blond girl and a boy are on the beach. The boy is far out in the turquoise water, bobbing happily, doing tricks for the girl who is trying to take his picture with a big cartoon camera. The girl keeps yelling, "Smile!" and the boy keeps smiling at her.

Then a wave comes. A huge wave rising on the horizon, a mountain of stealthy, black cartoon water, far over the boy's head.

When the girl yells, "Wave! Wave!" the boy waves to her. That's when the water crashes down over his head, flattening him thin, like a sheet of paper.

"Wave," my brother repeats, as we laugh at the cartoon.

"What are you two laughing at?" my mother calls from her bedroom down the hall.

I don't answer because I'm afraid she'll come in and sit down between us, talking through the good parts, whispering with my brother. I like it best when it's just me and Jim, and I can braid his baby-soft hair into tiny plaits like a Rastaman. He never lets me touch his hair in front of my mother.

"Don't treat him like a girl," she always tells me. "He's too old for that now."

But Jim calls out, tells her to come in and watch cartoons with us. When she sits down between us, all the air rushes out of the sofa cushion. We all sink low into the flecked canvas.

"You'll like this," he says, grinning at my mother. "Bugs Bunny is on next."

My mother doesn't watch the TV; instead she looks at Jim, smiling.

"Jim looks more like me all the time," my father says, patting him on the back, drawing up his chest for comparison, "and Medina looks like your mother, exactly."

"She doesn't look a thing like my mother, Phil," my mother says to him. "I don't know why you always say that."

"She looks exactly like your mother. Here, look at this photograph."

He drags out a photograph of my grandmother in New York. I look at her beady, black eyes, her tight smile, and her thin arms. I look at her chicken-skin neck. I smile at my mother, move closer to her. She turns to my father, who's sitting next to me in the afternoon shadows.

"Medina looks exactly like you," she says, pulling away.

On Thursday, the fog blows in while I eat breakfast. My mother is in her bedroom crying, my father is at the hospital. I'm in the kitchen reading the back of a cereal box, waiting for my brother. Then I see him from the window, through the settling fog. He's standing on the driveway, looking around nervously, spraying the asphalt with a hose. When I sneak up on him, he jumps, then yells at me to go back inside. He pushes me, losing control of the hose so it sprays the front of my sweater with cold water. Angry and soaked, I shove him back. He loses his balance, and I hear a big crunch when he hits the ground.

Then I see the graffiti Jim has been trying to erase. A few girlish chalk marks are still visible on the driveway, left from a graffiti raid on our house the night before.

Medina Mason Sucks.

Later, my brother floats in the pool, flicking water from his blond hair. In the afternoon haze he is beautiful, shoulders filled out with muscles, not skinny. He says, "Don't you care what the other girls say about you?"

I answer his question with a question. I say, "Do you care what the other girls say about me?"

He thinks for a moment, his tanned arms swishing the water around and around, his head downturned.

He says, "Yes."

I laugh, imagining myself taking off on an approaching wave.

"That's the difference between you and me, Jim. I don't care."

A chaos of stars is spattered across the skies of Palos Verdes. Everything else is regulated.

Each house must be at least a half acre away from the next, and the grass must be green and cut attractively. All roofs must be made of red tile, and the walls of each house must be whitewashed every three years.

There are laws against loud stereos and rap music. There are laws against pit bulls and loud parrots.

Children must wear uniforms to school, except on "free-dress days," each fourth Friday. The uniforms must be purchased at Palos Verdes Dry Goods, and they are to be kept clean and wrinkle-free.

There are no streetlights in Palos Verdes. There are no sidewalks. The street signs are handmade wood, free of all graffiti, carved in a sweet country scroll.

The air smells of sea oats and eucalyptus leaves. You notice the seagulls, crows, and the low moan of foghorns. If the wind blows from Malaga Canyon you hear the sound of peacocks mating. The eerie wails sound like children crying-

Meeee. Meeee. Meeee.

If you come, you see the lack of streetlights, fast-food stands, and apartment buildings, all outlawed by city ordinance. As you walk through the well-tended parks that are empty except for a few joggers, you see the air is clean.

The Palos Verdes police know each family by name and by make and model of their car. So do the citizens.

My father loves to drive fast.

Just after we move to Palos Verdes, he buys a Mercedes convertible and takes us on a family drive to see our new neighborhood.

He smiles, careening around the twisty roads, while my mother looks at the huge homes, the tiny ladies. She makes a verbal list of things a woman has to do in order to fit in here: One, buy a green tennis skirt. Two, lose twenty pounds. Three, burn herself to a crisp.

"My God, Phil! Does the sun ever stop!" she exclaims.

My father smooths his flying hair, sweeping his arms outward in a gesture of pride. "Paradise, no? Didn't I always tell you we'd end up somewhere like this?"

"So thin. Everybody's so thin here, so burned."

"Sandy, the sun is good for you. So is exercise and fresh, clean air."

My mother sinks low in the seat, shielding her face from the light and the thin, thin passersby.

"I can't believe we're living in a place where women wear green tennis skirts."

"You look great in green, Sandy. You'll fit in here in no time at all."

She shrugs, shivering, burying her face in her gray cowlneck sweater. My father pulls over to the side of the road to put up the top of the convertible.

It is something my father can never get used to, adjusting his life to my mother's sudden darkness.

It's my first month in Palos Verdes. The moon is full and gigantic; cloud strands float by in the night sky like silvery ribbons. I keep erasing my French homework until the paper is such a mess I can't see anything but smudges. Frustrated, I look out my bedroom window hoping to see sea lions and sea cows. My father says Palos Verdes used to be full of sea lions, but they don't like cars and noise so they've gone away. But sometimes they come secretly in the night, he says, so if I look hard I might see some.

Suddenly I hear a quiet splash. I crawl out on the window ledge, teetering as the wind puffs my pajama bottoms into big pontoons.

That's when I see them.

Eight or ten surfers cut smoothly through the black water, shiny in their rubber wet suits. They move quickly, silently, flashing their cigarette lighters in code as they take their places in the lineup. The first surfer stands up and pushes off. The wave arcs high and topples; I see a shadow race down its face, faster and faster, until it disappears from sight into the black water. I suck in my breath as the wave crashes and an explosion of silver light is thrown up against the moon. Other surfers follow, one after the next, shimmering with speed, melting into the liquid. I hear them laughing in the dark, then taking off again.

The air is wet as I hold my arms out against the salty breeze, imagining, cold air hitting my teeth.

As their lighters get doused, the surfers begin to scream to each other across the waves. Their voices carry clearly to my window.

"I'm fuckin' next."

"You're such a friggin' wave whore."


All order breaks down in the dark. They start to take off two and three to a wave, yelling, badgering each other. They race, paddling fast, laughing and cursing. There's a sharp crack as two boards collide, then silence.

A woman is standing on the edge of the stairs, searching with a powerful flashlight, shining it on each of the surfers, aiming for their eyes, telling them to keep their voices down or she'll call the police.

Immediately I hide from my mother.

My father is a heart surgeon to the stars in Beverly Hills. He removes fatty deposits from famous comedians and handsome-but-aging television stars.

As long as I can remember, he wanted to live in Southern California-the Golden State. The day he told us we'd be leaving Michigan he picked me up, swinging me around and around, almost knocking over the coffee table. He said soon we'd have orange trees, a big pool, and a pretty view of the ocean. There would be clean beaches, dolphins, and whales, and best of all it would never, ever get cold. My mother wasn't convinced. She said California was full of divorced people, murderers, and earthquakes.

On the plane, coming to California for the first time, my mother sits with my brother, looking out the window. My father talks to me across the aisle, glancing at the red-haired stewardess. He's rubbing his hands together over and over as if washing them.

"Guess what Palos Verdes means in Spanish," he says. "It means green sticks. Don't you think that's a funny name for a place, princess?" He looks at the pretty stewardess again, catching her eye and smiling.

My mother looks out the window toward Michigan, ignoring my father's cheerful banter. After a few minutes, she flags down the stewardess.

"My husband would like to meet you," she says.

In Palos Verdes, if you are close enough to the shore that the waves keep you awake at night, you are admitted to the tennis club, where you can play a set with the Mad Servers and complain about the water.

"It's just so loud. So incessant. I can't sleep."

My mother has plenty to say to the ladies of the Mad Servers.

"The surfers. They destroy all the ice plant. They drag their boards across the ice plant and ruin everything."

The Mad Servers look at each other. A few nod their heads politely. Until she continues.

"What's wrong with this place? How come the children roam around in packs? Why do they gather like mantises on the cliffs?"

This is my mother's first faux pas. The ladies of P.V. don't want to hear complaints about their children. The drinking, the smoking, the violence. No one wants to think about that. A kiss on both cheeks, a bibb lettuce luncheon: that is friendship.

Jim and I have lessons after school. All children are supposed to have lessons in Palos Verdes. There are tennis lessons, drama, and French. Voice, flute, and piano instruction. Lessons for ballroom dancing called cotillion, which surfers attend once a month in full formal dress. They learn how to cha-cha and waltz, so stoned they can barely lead their partners around the floor. Primly dressed girls apply red lipstick in the auditorium bathroom and hike up their long gowns until you see the curve of tanned calf.

There are Hebrew schools for the Jews, catechism for the Catholics. There are Girl Scouts and horse-riding lessons. Even polo.

Jim and I protest. We say we don't want so many lessons, because there's no time for fun things. I hear my parents talking it over in the kitchen.

"Maybe we should let them play with the other kids, maybe children shouldn't have so many things to do," my father says.

"Who could they play with, Phil? All the other kids have lessons, too."

The Palos Verdes mothers drive their children to these lessons between their facials and analysis. Or if they have housekeepers who drive, the maids do the chauffeuring. In return, the housekeepers get two hundred dollars a week and first pick of the Goodwill piles.

"We're so happy to help your family in Mexico," the ladies say. "Take anything in that pile right over there, anything you want."

"I know you want it," my neighbor Danny says.

He is fifteen and superweird. He says he'll give me a surprise if I lift up my shirt, let him see. We're sitting in his tree house above the eucalyptus grove in his backyard. Pot is puffing out the sides of his mouth, choking him like an amateur. He stares at my flat chest, choking.

His eyes are red and filmy, his hands tightly clenched over the nose of the vanilla surfboard he offers. The board is smooth and pale white, with a single flame of orange down the left side. It has two fins. Two. Danny strokes the board cockily and tells me I have to hold up my shirt for ten seconds if I want it-he'll count.

I think about the ocean outside my window, how I see the guys glide on it. I imagine myself free.

"That's all," I tell Danny. "One-one thousand, two-one thousand, like that. And you have to stay over there."

He eyes the board, then my shirt, squeezing his palms together, stoned, fanning his ugly face in the warm air. He nods, he gestures for me to lift it up.

"First put that board over here," I say.

I watch him put the board in the crook of his arm, carrying it to the place I decree. A place just beneath my feet.

"Now go back there, to where you were."

The whole ten seconds, I look at his eyes, at his dull expression. He stares at my bare, flat chest, saying nothing, blowing air on the inside of his cheeks like a stupid puffer fish.

When it's done, he doesn't look at me. He lies down on the wooden floor, breathing hard, dizzy. He motions for me to come to him, but I run, putting the vanilla board in the crook of my arm, dragging it down the rope ladder, smelling its coating of coconut wax and resin. All night I think about it, sitting in the garage, waiting for me to hold it.

After breakfast the next day, I avoid my mother and her dark sunglasses and heavy silences, but I sneak my brother out to the garage and show him the vanilla board. I run my fingers over its nose, talking about water. I promise I can get him one. I cross my heart.

Then I go to Danny in his tree house, climb right up the ladder as if it's mine.

"I want another," I insist. "I want another board."

He doesn't look at me, but he says he will talk to his friend.

The next day I go to Adam Frankel's house. Adam Frankel is sweaty, nervous, clammy. He tells me three times that his mother is coming home soon. His giant Adam's apple strikes me as funny, so I laugh and laugh. Then lift up my shirt, still laughing.

My brother's new board is green like his eyes.

The next day is free-dress day. The popular girls are all comparing their pretty outfits, doing a mock fashion show under the awning. I smile secretly, thinking of my surfboard as I sneak past them in the concrete hallway. But the girls come to hover around me, laughing, trying to trip me with their feet. I walk past, float even, as Cami Miller shouts out, "Five dollars!" eyeing my favorite brown pants.

Adelle Braverman follows suit, yelling, "Six ninety-nine!" and spitting at my pretty leatherette thongs.

I flinch only when Cami almost hits me with a heavy science book. As I jump back, Cami says, "Don't worry, we aren't gonna hit you. We wouldn't touch such a dirty girl."

I feel clean later, lying in the pool on my board for the first time. Cami is on the beach, a million miles away. I curse her as I float through the deep end, scanning the stairs for Jim, so he can hold my ankles if I try to stand up.

As I wait, I paddle slowly, back and forth in a line, maneuvering through the flat water on my belly, humming to myself.

I'm going to be the only girl to surf Palos Verdes.

Sometimes I dream I'm a boy.

The next day I carry my board, balancing it on my head down the cliff stairs to the bay. Jim follows, embarrassed, dragging his board under his arm like a suitcase. The water is calm and flat like the circle in a turquoise ring, but Jim bites his lip, scanning the horizon.

"People will laugh, maybe we should learn somewhere else."

"Oh Jim, don't be such a pussy, just close your eyes and go in."

For a minute I think he is going to punch me, but instead he smiles.

"You're insane, you crazy girl."

He slaps me hard with a frond of seaweed. Together we fight, kicking water into each other's nostrils, struggling to push each other into the whitewash. I jump in and climb on the board, holding its rail down with one hand the way pro surfers do. Jim jumps in, too, and pushes me off. I flounder in the water angrily, spinning and defeated.

"You surf like a girl," he says.

"You suck," I say, "like a troll."

He puts his right foot forward, and then his left, and says, "Which way are you supposed to stand?"

As I think about this, I forget how mad I am.

"Whichever way feels better," I tell him.

"Do you have the face you deserve after thirty?"

My mother cuts this quote out of a magazine and pastes it to the refrigerator. My mother is thirty-four. My father is forty-one.

My father looks at the quote and laughs, gathering my mother in his arms.

"You don't have to worry about that," he says. "When the times comes, I know doctors who can make you look twenty again."

"Maybe they can just replace my head," she says, pushing my father away. "Or maybe they'll just replace me when no one's looking."

My mother was a model at Bluff's Department Store in Michigan when she met my father. She had what her agency called "the look of the moment." ,p>Like Jackie Kennedy, my mother kept her eyes shrouded in huge, black, oval sunglasses all day. She hated the agency's endless nagging about her waistline, the exercise classes they sent her to, and the diet pills they gave her. But it's easy to see she loved the attention.

Here's a picture of my mother when she was skinny. Jim keeps it in his room, in a white frame on his desk. My mother's sitting on a knoll in a park, her legs demurely crossed, hands on her cheeks. She wears a white French suit, rosette beaded pumps, and a slender gold watch. She is surrounded by cute male models, each holding out a long-stemmed rose for her. She smiles giddily; there are so many flowers, she cannot choose among them.

It is an advertisement for the spring suits of 1964.

Today her hair is still styled like Jackie Kennedy's was in 1964.

My mother eats in secret while my father is at the hospital. First she only eats salty things that come in bags or plastic boxes. The sweet things come later.

After school and my lessons, I come home to the smell of plastic bags, salsa, and American cheese, all melting in the double oven. Torn tendrils of Dorito packs litter the stovetop, stinking like crossed wires as they melt on the coils.

My mother comes from her room only to get more bags, smiling blandly at me and Jim. Through the walls, we hear the sound of bags being popped open.

She puts an unopened bag of chips in her lap and claps her hands over the mouth of the bag so that it explodes open jauntily. Then it is quiet, until enough time has passed, and then there is another clapping sound, and then more quiet.

Puggles the dog stays in my mother's room, eating the crumbs that explode from the top of the bag. Puggles likes chips very much and wags his tail at the sound of any ripping plastic, even if it is only Dr. Phil Mason, our father, unwrapping a fresh batch of dry cleaning.

My mother gains weight quickly. Her Swedish cheekbones completely dissolve as her waistline expands.

"Don't hurt her feelings," Jim says when I stare.

My mother met my father when she was eighteen. She was a model, and my father was in medical school. Their parents said they were too young to get married, but they eloped to Chicago and called from a pay phone outside the county courthouse. My mother said she didn't want to get married, but my father says it was like this: When he found out she wasn't really pregnant, it was too late, they were married already.

When I ask why they didn't get a divorce right away, my father sighs. Then he tells me love is like the ocean. It goes far deeper than people understand.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Joy Nicholson. Published by St. Martin's Press, Inc., New York, New York

Meet the Author

Joy Nicholson lives in Los Angeles. The Tribes of Palos Verdes is her first novel.

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Tribes of Palos Verdes 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
we picked this book up for our isu project and both of us fell madlyyyyyy in love with it!!! thats for making school interesting!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The usual: Coming of age story for younger teens Not so usual: the intertwining of the california waves, the characters, and their experiences make it not only memorable and touching...but tragically beautiful as well
Guest More than 1 year ago
i thought this was the greatest book i have ever read. i couldnt stop reading it. i have read it several times and each time it gets better. i believe that no matter what is happening in your life you can find the comfort in the waves.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this was a great book, my friend let me borrow hers and after i read it once i had to give it back. But now i have my own copy because this is one of those books you could read over and over again without getting bored. The story idea is great and it was written really well, so whats a better combination when it comes to a good book??
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book was sooo awesome. i love how realistic it is. i not only enjoyed reading the great descriptions about the surf that i love so much but i was totally interested in jim. jim and medina reminded me of me and my brother and how we're so close. this book has been haunting me and reflecting in my mind ever since i finished this book. it is my favorite book ever and i'll be reading it over and over.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i am only 14, but i love to read about the beach. this is now one of my favorite books.i felt i could relate to this book... being around the same age and having some of the same problems. this book inspired me to surf. i loved the details about riding the waves. i loved how she told about her mother and her fathers silly arguments. i loved everything about this book. i think it is very unique.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Tribes of Palos Verdes has to be the best book I have ever finished. I could not put it down. I am in college and having spare time to read something just to enjoy does not exist, but with this book i actually could not make myself stop reading it. It is such an awesome book to relate to. Anyone who likes surfing would love this book. Even people who don't know a thing about surfing (sorta like me) would love this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really love this book. I think that I have read it about a hundred times. Medina, the main character has been compared to a female Holden Caulfield, and I totally agree. I recommend this book to anyone looking for a good read and also anyone who enjoys surf culture.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was an ok book. yeah sure we could relate, but i felt it emphasize sex and drugs too much. but it was a good surfing story!!!!!!hang ten!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was such a fantastic story! it is especially good for teens because they can relate so easily. It really shows the harsh and cruel world of small beach towns that are protective of 'Thier' beaches. Very honest and true. Unbelievable characters and tragic story. There is no other book like it! If you are in the mood for a good book...read this! Don't miss this treasure of a book!