Monday, January 23, 2017

California: A History – a book suggestion

By Kevin Starr, Modern Library, © 2005-2015, $17.

As a school principal I recall dropping by an eighth grade teacher’s history class the first day of school one year.  I remember him offering this sage comment to his charges: “The thing about history is that it’s a story well told.”  Surely that thought didn’t originate with him, but it stuck with me.

The story of California, from its geomorphic origins to its ranking as the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world is both dramatic and sublime.  It is expansive and illustrative of histories everywhere.  Decades back, I recall telling my fourth grade students that any kind of event that has happened in human history has happened in California.  Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in Italy?  Mount Lassen erupted here.  Overthrow of the British by the colonists in the 1770s?  The Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 tossed out a distant Mexican regime. The subjugation and massacre of Native Americans in the Great Plains?  We have the Modoc War (in which the only Cavalry officer having risen to the rank of General was killed.) Earthquakes in Alaska or Japan?  Reference shifts in our San Andreas Fault and many of its cousins.  Engineering feats like Egypt’s Aswan High Dam?  Ours are at Shasta and Oroville – and at the Golden Gate.

Then there are the events that have occurred or industries that originated only in place like California:  The titanic rail crossing of the Sierra, the birth of the motion picture industry in Hollywood, the dawn of aero space, Disney, Apple, Tesla.

I used to tell kids they could almost walk out their back door and step into some aspect California’s history or at, least find something within and hour or so from home if Mom or Dad would drive ‘em.  We live in a wonderful state.

Few people have told the story of California better than former state librarian Kevin Starr.  I purchased a copy of California:  A History the other day having read that Mr. Starr passed away a week ago.  My previous copy had somehow wandered off.

Rereading Starr’s work, I am reintroduced to the names and places – and the names that have become places – that I’ve enjoyed touring over the course of my explorations.  Mr. Starr makes me want to revisit the route of the Old Spanish Trail as well as the Applegate.  I want to again see Monterey’s presidio and the site of our state capitol in Benicia.  I need to see the Mount Wilson observatory and find my grand dad’s resting spot at Forest Lawn. I want to shake hands with Fremont and Carson and Bidwell and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Kevin Starr’s well-told story of California makes me want to do all these things.  Reading like an action/adventure novel in places, his history has proven to be both a pleasant departure from current events and a bit of an explanation of them.

If you’re in need of a similar respite, consider seeing your local independent bookseller and spending a few days in Mr. Starr’s California.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. One book I read many years ago was "two years before the mast" a true story of a young man sailing to CA on one of his fathers ships to pick up cargo and learn the business. I loved the description of the state which was primarily agriculture.

    1. Sometimes, driving 108 from Oakdale to Yosemite Junction or 128 west from Winters, I get the feeling I've been transported back to California's pastoral days that Dana wrote about. Actually, there are many highways and by-ways that bring about this feeling...