Raymond Starr, Book Reviews Editor
Californians: Searching for the Golden State
By James D. Houston. Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1985. Notes. 288 Pages. Soft-bound edition. $8.95.
Reviewed by James C. Williams, Director of the California History Center and Foundation, De Anza College; Coordinating Secretary of the California Committee for the Promotion of History; and contributor to various historical journals.
Almost a decade ago I objected to a professor’s insistence that California was a distinctively unique state. Although the works of Neil Morgan, David Lavender, Kevin Starr and a host of others did convince me that California’s experience was special, I could not shake the nagging suspicion that so also were the histories of many other places. It seemed to me then as now that the “uniqueness” which so many observers assigned California was at best so much ballyhoo and at worst a sort of ethnocentricism. Therefore, I approached with some trepidation award winning novelist James Houston’s Californians: Searching for the Golden State.
Houston, as have many other people, attempts to define California. Unfortunately, his essays, shaped from the words of the Californians he met while traveling the state between 1979 and 1980, are uneven. Some are captivating, as is the one in which Houston relates his confrontation with the ecological destructiveness of off-road vehicles at Hungry Valley, in the Los Padres National Forest below Bakersfield. Others seem nostalgic, perhaps pretentious, like that which describes his intimate visit to the Ridge Vineyard in Santa Clara County. Some contain well told stories, such as the chronicle of Mark Dubois’ battle with the Army Corps of Engineers over the Stanislaus River and the filling of New Melones Dam. Others miss opportunities, like the careful essay on the worldwide success and acclaim of El Teatro Campesino in which Houston misses the irony that Teatro has limited fame and support in its home community. Most, like that which focuses on San Diego, “the frontier of Sun Belt expansionism,” are descriptive of places, phenomena, or ideas which are not typical of the whole of California.
In the end, Houston finds California not a place, but an opportunity. Marked by great extremes in climate and landscape, by conflict between environmentalists and recreationalists, by hi-tech industrial growth and small hill top wineries, it is a place of diversity. It is a beginning for Asians coming east and a conclusion for Americans coming west. It is a place where one can be oneself, where family and community are tolerant, where one can dance on “the brink of the world.” Is it defined? Loosely at best. Is it unique? I remained unconvinced, though greatly entertained.