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The Other Side of Bakersfield, California

Cookesville USA


Author Sarah Burns has established herself as a prominent researcher and academic in the field of gender and race relations. The Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society recognized her graduate work, which competed with that of UC San Diego, UCLA, and the University of California Santa Barbara. In addition, Burns develped the very first survey course on Women's History at Bakersfield College (the first of its kind), which she began teaching in 1997.

"Cookesville U.S.A." is a Mystery/Thriller novel about the sleepy town of Bakersfield, CA. Or is it? In author Bruns’s new work, we discover that Cookesville is not so sleepy after all! In this fiction novel, numerous colorful characters of the westward expansion are ripped straight from history. From Santa Fé, New Mexico to the goldfields of California in 1850, Burns is putting Cookesville on the map and doing for central California what Raymond Chandler did for LA.

Continue reading for an author exclusive with Sarah Burns.

Who is Sarah Burns?


Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, a community on the Ohio River, 100 miles west of Louisville. My life changed dramatically when we moved to Anaheim, CA when I was twelve years old. Growing up in Orange County was a blast! I married at nineteen years of age—far too young—to an engineer who just graduated from college. This took me from Orange County to San Francisco, then to British Columbia, and eventually to Bakersfield, California. Having and raising my children in this community has made me, over the years, an at-first resistant member of the community, but eventually part of the fabric of a growing and thriving central valley town. I have been a teaching historian since 1995: first at Bakersfield College, then Cal State Bakersfield, before moving on to teach at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, CA since January 2005, and for Antelope Valley College since March of 2013. I was also a social and cultural historian, teaching for National University from 2008 to 2016. As one who specializes in both Women’s History and African American History—within the discipline of U.S. History—I am definitely a social activist.

What lead you to write your book “Cookesville USA?”

This book is the real, but fictionalized, a story of Bakersfield. Living in one town for several decades—for the first time in my life—my story became part of the fabric of a lasting community. Moving to Bakersfield was my husband’s choice, not mine. I gave birth to my children here. I divorced here, and I eventually found that I was the only immediate family member still living here, in a town not of my choosing. Why? I came to terms with the fact that this is a town that is also misunderstood—much like I was in first grade at Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Owensboro, Kentucky. That lost little girl found her voice and talent at Philpot Elementary School, then came into her own powerfully educated and teaching a new generation—in the hot and dusty town of Bakersfield. I looked back on my decades in this town and realized I had a lot of stories to share, good and bad, and that no one had presented the “inside scoop” on this town.

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How long did it take for you to write the book?

I started Cookesville in 2013 but was so busy teaching for three colleges at the time, that I struggled to find time to work on it. I found spaces of time for several years and then covid changed all of our lives in 2020. All of my classes went to the online classroom, so I no longer spent hours driving back and forth to campuses in Santa Clarita or Lancaster. I determined that 2020 would be the year to focus on this story, especially since I was—once again—“stuck” in Bakersfield. I continued writing into 2021, when I put the finishing touches on what I considered my “prize” story and began submissions to publishers. That is 8-1/2 years, but the major time span was a year and a half.

What message do you hope your book leaves readers with?

Cookesville, U.S.A. represents the very epitome and spirit of this wild west town. Its fictional locations and peoples are clearly representative of the stories and people I have come to know, love, laugh with, cry with, and—yes—sometimes despise, during my decades here. Long-time residents have been scouring its pages, recognizing the familiar, both beautiful and startling, while clinging to the love stories and affairs. If you have lived in this valley town for any length of time, you know that it is far from the boring oil town that a drive-by on Freeway 99 portrays. There are dozens to hundreds of beautiful communities, along with country clubs, tennis clubs, restaurants, and more—representative of many races, ethnicities, social categories, and distinct cultures. From the Okie migration of the Dust Bowl Days to the 1940s-1960s migrations to California to support the war effort and build new housing for those migrants, there is an abundance of history, drama, crime, and cover-ups. Vigilante justice founded this valley town in the 1850s, and behind the scenes, vigilantism is never too distant.

What other books have you written?

My first book was published in 2003, entitled, Daughters of Juno, Chronicle I; Matilda of Argyll, with Ivy House Publishers. My intention was to use this book as a starting point for several books. Within a few years, however, I determined that I would like this book to stand on its own, so I would be free to move in a different direction. I edited and republished the book in 2007 as Matilda of Argyll, with University Press of the South. I have also contributed chapters to two motivational books: Wake up, Live the Life You Love…on an Enlightened Path; Wake up, Live the Life You Love…with Gratitude. I also have academic papers published in scholarly journals, after residencies/presentations to the Oxford Roundtable on Women in History (2003 and 2012), and ATINER in 2004 (Athens Institute for Educational Research).

Do you have any upcoming projects or events that you would like to tell us about?

I continue to promote my book at events, on radio and television programs here in Bakersfield, as I also continue teaching for two colleges. Meanwhile, I have begun conceptualizing and writing my next book—based upon my life experience. It will be fictionalized, of course, to protect friends and family members from personal exposure.

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