David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
California—Where The Twain Did Meet. By Anne Loftis. New York: Macmillan Co., 1973. Index. Notes. 281 pages. $7.95.
Reviewed by Richard H. Dillon, Sutro Librarian, San Francisco, and author of numerous books, among them: Burnt-Out Fires (1973) and the forthcoming Siskiyou Trail.
The dust jacket blurb notwithstanding (“social geography”), this is ethnic history, and at its best. It is a survey of the peoples of California, from the Miwok of ancient times to the latest Samoan to hit San Francisco’s Mission Street.
This is a book of a very different point of view from most one-volume histories of the state (Caughey, Rolle, Roske, et al.). While the author breaks little new ground in terms of historical data and interpretation, she very skillfully integrates a great amount of disparate ethnic detail and historical anecdote to present a unified narrative of the collision of cultures in California. Earlier works have either treated a single minority or have been of a patchwork pattern.
The book is a descendant of Carey McWilliams’ several classic volumes of social history, and is kin to such works as Gunther Barth’s Bitter Strength and Leonard Pitt’s Decline of the Californios. But it differs in that Ms. Loftis wields an all-inclusive net and captures the stories of minorities ranging from Nisei to Armenians, Okies to Molokan Jews of Boyle Heights and the Potrero.
The book has some weaknesses. There are little things like misspellings of Spanish terms and proper names. These blemishes probably reflect more the budgetary problems of the copy-editing cadre at Macmillan than lapses by the author—though the latter, of course, is ultimately held responsible. In style, there is, at times, an annoying lack of specificity. Thus, “an inspector” (nameless) condemns Indian reservations; “a general” (anon.) writes Governor Burnett. True, in many (most?) cases, we can thumb our way to the notes at the end of the chapter and puzzle out who said what to whom. But is the trip really necessary? How much simpler to just use the gents’ names in the first place. Again, this offense (if that is what it is) can perhaps be laid at the feet of editor rather than author, since editors of popular non-fiction often chide their writers for using “too many” names, which, presumably, overtax the readers. But this should not be the case in a scholarly book such as this one. Finally, there is no bibliography, as such, at the end of the book. You must ransack the seven collections of notes and find the first mention of a work in order to obtain full imprint.
On the bright side, Ms. Loftis makes clear many fuzzy points of our social history, both ancient and modern. She reminds us that early legislators were ambivalent as well as hypocritical, at times, toward foreigners. (The Chinese were welcomed initially—as curiosities, to be sure—before being vilified and hated.) In more recent times, economics can make strange bedfellows—Sikh and Nisei growers may find themselves allies of Establishment big business against the Mexicans of Chavez’ UFWOC, while Teamsters mill about. Backstage, and grinning sardonically from the wings, waiting the right cue, is the frightful ogre of fully automated agribusiness, toxic to small growers as well as field workers.
The author is to be congratulated for providing us with such a long-needed survey of her subject, particularly because it is written so clearly and interestingly. She has not let her sympathies and compassion weaken her honesty and candor, either. Bravo!