Where I Was From

by Joan Didion

Knopf, 226 pp., $23

JOAN DIDION recalls that as an eleven-year-old she "declined to go any longer to church." In her new book, "Where I Was From"--simultaneously a memoir of her family's pioneer past and a dissection of the history of California--she doesn't make much of the fact. However it struck me because I wondered if, growing up in Sacramento, she missed the part in her Sunday school where the class read the Bible's genealogical sections.

Readers have differed on what meaning to draw from these biblical lists of names and localities, and, in her writing, Didion also offers different interpretations of the meaning of California, which she always sees as filtered through the history of her own family. Back in 1963, she wrote "Run River," a novel of adultery and hop farming along Sacramento's rivers and levees. Throughout that book she expressed a longing for the past, for a romantic Old California of the children of the pioneers, which disappeared with the population surge after World War II. Now, with the non-fiction "Where I Was From," she rejects such nostalgia as "pernicious." In artfully elliptical fashion, she makes clear that Californians, from the first American settlement in the mid-nineteenth century, were always what they are today: ready to sell their state to the highest bidder, no matter the cost to the natural beauty of the land or the moral integrity of the people.

In this telling, the profoundest turning point was the coming of the Southern Pacific railroad, which provided an easy way across the Sierra Nevada, a passage that previously had been the most terrifying of all trials the early pioneers had to overcome. In the 1840s, the notorious Donner-Reed party (whose name seems to come up in Didion's book every few pages) was famously reduced to cannibalism when trapped by the snow in the mountains. With a railroad, that singularly powerful and wealthy entity, connecting it to the East, California--which before had been isolated, unpopulated, and almost innocent--was set to become sprawling, populous, and urban. Its innocence permanently comprised by the railroad, this state whose people prided themselves on independence became, in various ways that Didion catalogues here, wards of the federal government. Thus the aerospace boom that ended in 1989 with the close of the Cold War was all the result of an infusion of government money, which when withdrawn left a vacuum that California has yet to fill. The vacuum was not only economic but spiritual, resulting in horrors like the 1993 "Spur Posse" episode, in which a gang of boys from Southern California's Lakewood, essentially an aerospace town, were accused of sexually molesting and otherwise terrorizing girls as young as ten years old.

Didion bitterly renders the meaninglessness of life in post-aerospace Lakewood, whose adolescents the community seeks to assuage with city sports programs: "those blank-faced Lakewood girls, those feral Lakewood boys. There are the dead eyes, the thick necks, the jaws that closed only to chew gum." Are the eyes really so dead, the necks truly so thick? Maybe not, but it's possible to love Didion's writing without believing everything she says. There is a certain Didion mood--delicate, fevered, paranoid, at the same time cynical and sentimental--that I for one adore. As a writer she is always short of breath, with a racing pulse. It is, I suppose, a matter of taste. One reads her for the style, not so much for the truth.

Which is good, because not everything in her book is true. Never mind her denials, Didion is as devoted as ever to touching and caressing the past, recounting names and places with all the obsessive attention of the repeated censuses to which the people of Israel are subjected in the Pentateuch. "Where I Was From" has many passages like this:

I know nothing else about Elizabeth Scott Hardin, but I have her recipe for corn bread, and also for India relish: her granddaughter brought these recipes west in 1846, traveling with the Donner-Reed party as far as the Humboldt Sink before cutting north for Oregon, where her husband, the Reverend Josephus Adamson Cornwall, was determined to be the first Cumberland Presbyterian circuit rider in what was then called Oregon country. Because that granddaughter, Nancy Hardin Cornwall, was my great-great-great-grandmother, I have, besides her recipes, a piece of appliqué she made on the crossing. This appliqué, green and red calico on a muslin field, hangs now in my dining room in New York and hung before that in the living room of a house I had on the Pacific Ocean.

Didion claims that the "enchantment" of this pioneer past "began to seem remote" to her in 1971 or 1972. That was when she visited, with her daughter, a redeveloped Ye Olde Towne-type section of Sacramento, fixed up (like the downtowns of many older West Coast cities in recent years) to look as it did in the nineteenth century. The falseness of this struck her, especially in contrast to the living, breathing reality of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo (named for the state in southeastern Mexico), to whom "any ghosts on this wooden sidewalk" were irrelevant.

Yet one page later Didion is listing, in loving detail, the inherited antiques that Quintana received when the author's mother died:

There was an oval Victorian table with a marble top that had come to my mother from some part of the family, I no longer remember which. There was a carved teak chest that had been in my mother and father's bedroom when I was a child. There was a small piecrust table that had been my grandmother's. There was, from among my mother's clothes, an Italian angora cape that she had been wearing ever since my father gave it to her, one Christmas in the late 1940s. Actually I took the angora cape.

It's very hard to get over the enchantment of one's past. There is something deep, elemental about knowing the names and even just fragments of biographies of your ancestors. The blood contains ghosts, ineradicable.

The second major untruth lies in Didion's conclusion that the past and future of California are something we should feel sour about. The fact that the great ranches, such as the Hollister and the Irvine, were sold off and subdivided is to her an example of how California's history has been erased, to the impoverishment of the state. She doubts that the arrival of Americans in Mexican "Alta California" was a good thing in the first place: "The settlement of the west, however inevitable, had not uniformly tended to the greater good, nor had it on every level benefited even those who reaped its most obvious rewards."

In her opinion, it's all been downhill from there, a process of turning the beloved state into an "entirely dependent colony of the invisible empire" of certain "corporate and political interests." In her view, the San Francisco reformer Henry George was right in 1868 when he wrote an article entitled "What the Railroad Will Bring Us." It will bring, he said, "this crowding of people into immense cities, this aggregation of wealth into large lumps, this marshalling of men into big gangs under the control of the great 'captains of industry.'"

You know that Didion's ancestor, the Reverend Josephus Adamson Cornwall, wouldn't have fretted about growing cities taking the place of farmland and wilderness. What is it with this strain of liberal apocalypticism, always tracing a path in history from innocence to ruin?

Maybe it has to do with the fact that a lot of liberals "declined to go any longer to church" and thus missed out on absorbing not only the biblical genealogies but an assumption that was commonplace until not long ago--that no matter how big and crowded the cities got, no matter how squeezed for land we might feel, it ultimately was not a problem because history was building to a conclusion, a happy one.

For the liberal secularist, there is no such prospect. California, like everything else, will keep deteriorating, the cities will keep growing, until it is all utterly unlivable, ruined--and then what?

David Klinghoffer's most recent book is "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism."

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