by Mary Austin
Ever since the time of the Spanish posession of the state, California's history has been shaped by its vast resources and its often just as vast shortages. This book, published in 1917, captures one episode in that sprawling history. Austin describes the lives of one family that started out ranching in the valley of Tierra Longa (most likely modeled from the Owens Valley). Kenneth and Anne are children of an embittered mother and a perpetually defeated father. They are determined to make a different life for themselves but find themselves going up against growing interests in precious oil and even more precious water. Old Man Rickart is an old style baron, wheeling and dealing in resources and land. Kenneth finds himself employed by Rickart, but then is drawn back to the lands of his childhood and digs in his heels against the despoilation of development. Austin tells a wide story, from social upheavals, union riots and women's rights to grabs for water and mineral rights; a story that captures California's history quite well. Austin's writing is peculiar and dense, and many of her characters somewhat shallow. She is given to a deeply feminist viewpoint, and the social setting of the book is critical to understanding its thrust. The book is ambitious, though, and is an outstanding historical document. Austin is in love with the land and its almost mystical hold over her characters. One can't help but imagine, though, that the ranch lands of Palomitas would today lay beneath a gated development and a couple of boring valley strip malls. Overall, the book is powerful, but maybe just a touch too ambitious. Worth a look.
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