I have been reconsidering my roots lately. A friend loaned me a book and said I should read it: Joan Didion’s memoir Where I was from. My friend was right: Didion’s memoir tells the long sad story of the Golden State, from the time when her great-great-great grandfather took his family west from Iowa to the promised land, to her own experience of the vast expansion through the 20th century, in particular the post war boom of the 50s.
Joan Didion is from Old California stock–I grew up keenly aware of the difference between her class and mine, New California stock. She grew up on land that was granted to her family after the Great Crossing, the first wave of migrations to the land of plenty. My family, though western for many generations back, moved to Southern California after the war, and just as she describes in her book, took advantage of the vast land grab that took advantage of the generous veteran’s benefits. Our house was as Southern California 50s standard issue as the uniform my dad wore in the air force.
Joan Didion chronicles, with scalpel-sharp insight, the myths and realities of California from the Crossing to the present day, from the bad choices and terrible fortunes of the Donner Family to the bad choices and devil-may-care development of some of the most valuable, beautiful and fertile lands in the world. She quotes several times the ringing truth of one of the Donner survivors, “Don’t take no shortcuts, and hurry right along.” The irresistible lure of quick wealth and a land of gold led to short cuts and impulsive decisions. The pioneers often had no idea they were heading straight into a box canyon.
From the covered wagons to the first McDonald’s drive-in, from John Muir’s beloved redwoods to the bizarre Bohemian Grove in those same woods, the box canyon of California is of course the loss of soul, the get-rich-quick scheme, the shallow roots in a land of plenty, and I grew up in the thick of it. One of Didion’s main images to depict the history of change is Lakewood, a Southern California town created in the image of post-war housing boom that would feed McDonald-Douglass aircraft, Lockheed and many other cold-war machines. Lakewood was a stone’s throw from where I grew up and I grew up with the myth she recalls: a glittering, modern city with excellent schools for creating the workforce of tomorrow. As anyone watching the movie could predict, this ended badly a generation later, after the military industrial complex moved to the South, and there was nothing to replace it.
California presents story after story of success and wealth and fame and fortune. It is in fact a gloriously beautiful land, a fertile land. When I was growing up there, near Seal Beach and Huntington, I assumed the whole world was blessed with beautiful ocean breezes and farmland as far as the eye could see. That’s all different now, the farms couldn’t match the economy, most have sold to track housing or golf courses or big box stores. Didion presents a slant on the history that has set me to re-thinking everything, from my grandmother’s dreams of success to my own dreams of well-being.
And through it all, I keep thinking of Kate Wolf’s song Here in California and the chorus:
There’s no gold in California
I thought I’d warn you
the hills turn brown in the summertime.