National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 16, 2004

By Joan Didion
Alfred A. Knopf, 226 pages, $23
California dreaming turns to dust

Joan Didion looks at how and why the promise of California failed


The always engaging Joan Didion has written a probing account of her California childhood in the Sacramento region. She comes from pioneer stock, one branch of the family having trekked across the Great Plains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Pacific coast in the 1840s. About that same time, another branch made a similar crossing, braving hardship and all the attendant rigors of the daunting journey between the Missouri frontier and the Pacific coast. During that trip her great-great-great grandmother Elizabeth Anthony Reese buried one child, gave birth to another and twice contracted mountain fever.

“These women in my family,” Didion observes, “would seem to have been pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew.”

“Clinically radical” instincts aptly describes Didion’s own literary gifts. Her work over the past four decades has been invigorated by a relentless intelligence that has made her one of the most significant observers of the American scene.

But Where I Was From is more than just a portrait of a pioneer family. With her superb reportorial eye, Didion draws a compact and revealing picture of California at the turn of the 21st century. Blessed with a surplus of natural resources, the state early on became a battleground between greedy moguls (including the federal government) hell-bent on controlling these resources. The myth of the plucky individual -- for example those members of Didion’s ancestral family who came as pioneers to the Western wilderness -- sustained itself for 150 years by Didion’s reckoning until the dream began to unravel in the 1980s.

“California likes to be fooled,” says a character in The Octopus (1901), Frank Norris’ great novel about wheat growers and the railroads in the San Joaquin Valley; and that penchant for self-deception, Didion insists, runs throughout the history of the state. The myth of the small entrepreneur scratching out a living for himself and his family was confounded by the hoggish presence of the railroad barons, who bought up land and people’s lives (“temporary chips,” says Didion, “in the greater game of capital formation”) with little regard for their future or welfare.

The myth of the solitary yeoman diligently tending his 160 acres was confounded by the spectacle of gigantic landholdings numbering hundreds of thousands of acres that were run like private fiefdoms well into the 20th century. These ranches with their rambling haciendas, rippling grasslands and shadowy stands of live oaks typified the baronial majesty of rural California life; the fact that they were eventually sold by their owners to developers who converted their pastoral beauty into strip malls and tract housing adds a bitter epilogue to the ongoing betrayal of the promise of California life.

But the most destructive influence on the California psyche, says Didion, has been the presence of the federal government. For 50 years, from World War II to the 1990s, the gargantuan Fed, through the agency of its defense and aerospace industries, created and sustained a new type of economy based on the threat of nuclear war. Business being business, the money trail is the only trail, and by the turn of the 21st century, corporations such as Northrop and McDonnell Douglas, looking to lower their costs, had moved their operations to Georgia and South Carolina. The classic immigrant dream of finding a better life went bust like a wagon with a broken axle on the Oregon Trail. The great social benefits of the 1960s that enabled ordinary citizens to obtain medical care and access to higher education dried up and blew away.

For some perverse reason that not even Didion can explain, California relinquished the promise of the genuinely good life, sustained by an energetic mix of enlightened capitalism and government welfare, for a world of corporate rapacity and federal indifference. By the 1980s, instead of jobs in the aircraft industry, small towns were competing for new prisons as a major source of employment. “It was 1994 when standardized testing of reading skills among California fourth-graders placed them last in the nation, below Mississippi, tied only with Louisiana,” Didion laments. “It was 1995 when, for the first time, California spent more on its prisons than on its two university systems, the 10 campuses of the University of California and the 24 campuses of California State University.”

Where I Was From is an elegy to a place and time that within the span of a single life has changed irrevocably from a bastion of bright hopes to a sink of failed dreams.

Conger Beasley Jr. is a novelist and travel writer who lives in St. Joseph, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2004

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