The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 7 April 2004

Where I was From

by Joan Didion

California has a complex of "founding myths" that define how we, as Californians, see the state and its culture. There are numerous other Golden State myths, so that people all over the country have a preconception about this place. Governor Schwarzenegger and the farcical race that brought him into office didn't help that image much.

Joan Didion was born and raised in California, raised with the myths that have sustained its school children since its founding. In this book, Didion powerfully evokes the conflict and contradictions between the myth and the reality. It is a personal story, but a familiar one; somewhat polemical, but also reasoned and well-considered. Begin, for example, with the infamous Donner party and the "crossing myth" that they typify. They were bold refugees from another life, trekking to the golden promised land of wide open spaces and personal independence. That they were reduced to eating each other on the way isn't remembered as much with horror as a fluke of the time. But California is full of such dark and often murderous tales of injustice and tragedy. These are as much a part of our being as the stories of the Gold Rush and of shining Hollywood and of the great agricultural paradise that is the San Joaquin valley.

Joan Didion has left California and now makes New York her home. She looks back on her home state and its story with a certain amount of bitterness and a cranky sense of justice. While we all like to dream of the golden hills rolling beneath the Sierra, the wide open spaces, and unspoiled coastline, why do we also tolerate the sprawl of suburbia and corporate strip malls leaching money and hope out of the culture? This is one of the questions Didion asks. She doesn't present any solutions, just a detailed portrait of the contradiction. California has a long history of this kind of exploitation, though we would like to think that the state of the state is merely the result of irrevocable and universally negative Change. Didion convinces us that this lament is part of the historical character of the state. Throughout the book, members of her own ancestry are characters. Her mother and grandmother loom large here, though her father is barely mentioned. In the end, it is her own mother's death and the death of her grandmother that give a moving note to the whole question of identity and place. A cranky book, and a good book.

[Mail John][To List]

Also by Didion: [Play it as it Lays]

[Other Women Authors]

[Other Books in or about California]