by Richard M. “Rico” Lange
If you've been following the news recently, you may have concluded that the California Dream is over—the state is hemorrhaging population (mostly to Texas), crime is rampant, there are too many homeless people, and the sun is no longer visible through all the wildfire haze.
Having been born here and seen the population grow from fewer than 20 million in the late 1960s to nearly 40 million today, causing housing prices to go from affordable to forget-about-it, I’m inclined to let that nightmare portrait stand. But the truth is that for the past 500 years, if not longer, California has been simultaneously dreamy and problematic.
Five recent books, each focused on a different aspect of the state, create a tapestry of California’s long history of political, geographic, economic, and social dynamism.
Millennia before California was a state, it was home to a widely varied Indigenous population. Portending things to come, the geographic region that roughly coincides with California’s current borders was among the most diverse in precontact North America. In We Are the Land: A History of Native California (now in paperback), the first full history of the state’s Native Peoples, authors Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr. bring to life the variety of cultures, languages, and modes of living that thrived before the first Europeans touched the continent’s western shores.
They show how each distinct group of Native Peoples, from the Modoc and Maidu in the northern mountains to the Ohlone and Chumash on the Central Coast to the Chemehuevi in the southeastern deserts and the dozens of other communities in between, identified themselves—spiritually, physically, emotionally—with the land that sustained them. Even after the changes brought by European settlement—the mission system, the Gold Rush, the damming of major rivers—that focus on the land hasn’t changed. Contemporary California Natives continue to fight for sovereignty and the right to reclaim and control their traditional territory.
The book’s great contribution is that it doesn’t offer an “alternative” history of California, but shows how Native Californians have been, and continue to be, an integral part of the major events that have shaped the state.
Diversity is also at the heart of John Mack Faragher’s California: An American History. A professor at Yale and the author of several other books on the West, including one on frontier-era Los Angeles, Faragher makes the point that California is, in many ways, its own country, bounded and defined by geography. The state’s great geographic variety has throughout its history spurred different industries, and those industries have created distinct lifestyles, but the fishers on the coast, the farmers in the Central Valley, the timber harvesters in the forests, and the moviemakers in Hollywood all contribute to the vast place and idea that is California.
While Faragher celebrates California, he doesn’t shy away from its problems. Yes, the state’s economy and financial surplus are the envy of the rest of the country, but those previously mentioned headlines, while greatly exaggerated, are built on some unpleasant truths—property crime in urban areas is on the rise, we have more homeless people than any other state, and climate change is rapidly and drastically affecting precipitation, increasing the threats posed by wildfire. (The lamentations over population loss are mostly nonsense: Roughly speaking, for every person who has left in the past 3 years, another has arrived.) And there are other issues: California is near the bottom in K–12 spending per pupil, much of our infrastructure is in disrepair, and the pandemic exposed major disparities in health care for people of color, with Black and Hispanic communities suffering disproportionate amounts of illness and death. But if Faragher’s book teaches us anything, it’s that California is ever evolving and is uniquely positioned to address its issues.
Complementing Faragher’s big-picture approach, political journalist Ronald Brownstein ditches breadth for depth. In Rock Me on the Water: 1974—The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics, he takes a month-by-month look at the different projects and collaborations that came together in 1974 and argues that the year marked the peak of La-La Land’s influence on the country and the world.
In film, Hollywood’s antiquated studio system was fading with the rise of LA-based auteurs like Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. On the radio, the British invasion was losing ground to the Eagles, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and other LA-area progenitors of the “California sound.” On television, prime-time had bid farewell to rural-themed fare (The Waltons, The Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza) and said hello to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and other hip, mostly urban shows created by LA writers and producers. In politics, the Los Angeles Times was giving up its far-right-wing provincialism for more inclusive reporting, and the city elected Tom Bradley, its first Black mayor. Meanwhile, New York, LA’s great cultural rival, was mired in crime and on its way to bankruptcy.
Whatever your view of 1974 Los Angeles—I personally remember a lot of smog—the fact that it gave us Mitchell’s Court & Spark, Browne’s Late for the Sky, the Eagles’ On the Border, Tom Waits’s Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night, Ry Cooder’s Paradise and Lunch, plus the movies Chinatown, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and not one but two Coppola masterpieces (The Godfather II and The Conversation) suggests that the city was indeed having a moment.
Just as every history of California must contend with the entertainment industry, no survey of recent books about California would be complete without a mention of Obi Kaufmann. A naturalist, writer, and illustrator, Kaufmann made his first big splash with The California Field Atlas, a lushly illustrated overview of the state’s climate, geography, and natural features. With the art-direction vibe of a Wes Anderson movie, the book is simply gorgeous, a form to match its subject. But a Kaufmann book is more than just a pretty California face. Driven by data, Kaufmann’s work brings the basic facts, figures, and shape of the state to life in new and compelling ways.
His new book, The Coasts of California, takes a deep look at the state’s western edge. Though Kaufmann gives more famous coastal spots their due, his true passion is for sloughs, bays. and creeks, and the coastal wildlife they support. He also offers insights on the special habitats found on the state’s beautiful and lightly visited islands. A major highlight is a detailed journey—through maps, descriptions, and illustrations—along the California Coastal Trail, the 1230-mile Oregon-to-Mexico route that rivals the state’s more famous Pacific Crest Trail. Part field guide, part ode to beauty, part scientific survey, the book is a tribute to the geographic feature that, for most of the world, defines California.
With no disrespect to its impressive coastline and influential movie studios, California’s greatest feature is the Sierra. Without it, there’s no Gold Rush, no Yosemite, no Lake Tahoe, and no Mt. Whitney. If it weren’t for the Sierra’s annual snowpack and runoff, the state’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry doesn’t exist. Neither do modern San Francisco or Los Angeles.
No one appreciates the Sierra more than Kim Stanley Robinson, the writer most famous for the Mars trilogy. In The High Sierra: A Love Story, Robinson tells of first venturing into the range in 1973, when he was in his early twenties. Since then, he has returned over a hundred times, generally with the same overlapping group of companions, to hike most of the High Sierra’s major trails, wander its canyons, and climb its peaks and passes.
While the book is an examination of Robinson’s emotional connection to the Sierra, he assesses it from a multitude of angles. Stories of great hikes are interspersed with chapters on the Paiute and Mono people, residents of its eastern and western flanks, respectively, who migrated into the high country in summer to escape the lowland heat and trade with their distant neighbors; and with the adventures and contributions of the historical figures who are synonymous with the region—John Muir, Clarence King, Norman Clyde, and Mary Austin, among others.
As a science fiction author whose work prioritizes the science half of that descriptor, Robinson is especially good on geology, displaying an impressive understanding of the ways volcanism, plate tectonics, and glaciers have shaped California’s big mountains. He understands the specific processes that have set the Sierra apart from other great ranges around the world and made it such a draw for hikers and backpackers. The book’s exhaustive annotated Sierra bibliography shows that Robinson has also devoured an impressive percentage of literature on the Sierra. Like California’s Native Peoples, he has found a deep and abiding connection with a particular piece of California. His book honors it and seeks ways to protect it for future generations.
The dynamism at the heart of each of these California stories reminds us that California is still evolving and that change—hopefully for the better—is not just possible but inevitable.
Richard M. Lange’s short fiction has appeared in North American Review, Cimarron Review, Mississippi Review, Ping Pong, Chicago Quarterly Review, Eclipse, Georgetown Review, and elsewhere. Two of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His essay “Of Human Carnage” was included in Best American Essays 2016 and listed as a Notable in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2017.