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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Capturing the Golden State: California: A History, Kevin Starr, Modern Library: October 2005

Urban California is quintessential Big Sky country. Compare a walk in Manhattan with a walk in downtown Los Angeles or San Francisco. Look at the sky. In California cities, one can spread his or her arms wide and embrace the horizon. In New York, one can pinch with two fingers the sliver of sky playing peek-a-boo between skyscrapers. This invigorating, eternal California sunshine in the midst of bustling progress is the main theme of Kevin Starr’s latest work, California: A History.

Starr is a former state librarian and a professor at USC. His five-volume history of California, Americans and the California Dream (Oxford), which ends at the start of the 21st century, is the definitive history of this state.

California: A History is a 350 page summary of his  opus. It spans the years 1510 to 2005. While obviously not as detailed as the work from which it was taken,  Starr’s fast-paced narrative is both exhaustive and comprehensive. In the book’s first half, Starr takes the reader from Spanish colonial times up through the nineteenth century.

Although he could only touch briefly on the major events of Spanish and then Mexican California, Starr’s lively writing style, along with his obvious enthusiasm for his subject, render this section quite readable. Many readers of early California history, perhaps intimidated by Starr’s lengthy volumes, will be pleasantly surprised by his ability to include numerous eyebrow-raising facts within the narrative.  He describes Father Junipero Serra’s Sacred Expedition to settle coastal California as”…a phantasmagoria of physical hardship, deprivation, suffering, and death.” Serra founded nine Franciscan missions, and was so fanatical in his religious self-mortification that he insisted on walking in the desert sun from Mexico City to San Diego on an ulcerated leg. Father Serra’s determination becomes an essential part of California’s character.

Readers will particularly enjoy Starr’s description of America’s conquest of California in 1846. Starr slows down his narrative to carefully tell an amazing tale featuring “an extravagant cast of characters, mad dashes through the countryside by regular and irregular troops, bloody clashes of cavalry, and an overall mood of secret diplomacy.” The United States deployed its naval fleet to the California coast, and violent battles were waged between Americans and Mexicans in the still small communities of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Monterey.

In the book’s second half, Starr breaks with his chronological narrative and divides the twentieth century into specific subject areas.  He covers virtually every aspect of California life, including the arts, aviation, technology, infrastructure, labor unions, race relations, and the development of suburbia.

Starr describes a deeply divided California in his chapter on labor unions. It is here that he clearly depicts California’s constant dichotomy – the right wing attaining power in some disputes, the left wing in others, the two almost always evenly matched in the end. He also shows how California leftists espouse quite a few right wing views and vice versa.  This festival of opposites and contradictions is another important piece of the California puzzle.

Another step in the formation of California’s personality was the making of modern suburbia, as inspired by Disneyland. Starr once again slows down the narrative to give special attention to Disneyland’s origins.  Starr claims, “Disneyland suggested that complex urban environments could be deliberately created and orchestrated to incorporate regional and related cultural values.” Thus, Disneyland was intended to become a permanent World Exposition show, a place where Californians could experience a model community, starting with Main Street, USA. Starr continues, “Disneyland can legitimately be seen as a kind of city planning paradigm for Orange County.”

Starr peppers his history with compelling, often myth-busting anecdotes. He relates how the first heavier than air flight took place just outside San Diego, reveals that John Muir and Yosemite Valley were the impetus for the National Park System and that various founders of the film industry fled to California to avoid debts incurred to Thomas Edison back east.

In choosing entertaining, usually humorous anecdotes with broad appeal, Starr has written a highly accessible book, suitable for readers of all interest levels. Starr is also careful to repeat pertinent details of historical events he references later in the book. By doing this, he performs a wonderful courtesy for the reader, preventing the usual practice of scanning the index and page flipping.Starr believes that California is a vibrant place of never-ending contrasts. Laid back surfers run home to stay up all night inventing the personal computer. Leftist pro-labor activists have a terrible history of racism. California’s largest cities have no skyscrapers, granting impoverished urban dwellers inspiring vistas in the most bleak and densely populated areas. A thriving land of productivity and invention, California is, in Starr’s view, one of the few genuinely American places, where opportunity can be measured by the broad horizon and beyond.

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