For four decades, Didion has written in masterly fashion about the contradictions of California culture. In this book, she casts an arctic eye on recent phenomena—the Rodney King riots, the Spur Posse—and on her own upbringing in the Sacramento area. Her great-great-grandparents "crossed" to California in the eighteen-hundreds, and she was brought up on wistful recollections of the past. Her family lived in dark houses, ate with tarnished silver, dressed her in "an eccentric amount of black," and prized anything that was "old." Along with a recipe for India relish and a green-and-red calico appliqué, she inherited a view that California had been spoiled. And yet "the logical extension of this thought, that we were the people who had spoiled it, remained unexplored." Addressing her own confusion about the place, she identifies the settler imperative—"the past could be jettisoned, children buried and parents left behind"—in the fact that her birthplace is now "a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
Didion's remarkable family history parallels that of the U.S. in its journey west, belief in starting over, and enduring stoicism. Her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Scott, was born in 1766 and left what became Virginia for Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Missouri Territory. Elizabeth's granddaughter traveled deep into the western frontier with the infamous Donner-Reed party, and others made it to the promised land of California, where Didion was born and raised. Her homeland has always influenced her work, but now in the wake of her parents' deaths, she sees her native land with startlingly fresh and revelatory clarity. As always, Didion is scrupulous in her research, discerning in her observations, and eloquent as she scours the outer world for keys to inner conflicts, and, consequently, her insights into California's psyche are perspicacious and arresting. A land seemingly dedicated to personal freedom, it is in fact a state saddled with an inordinate number of prisons, a debilitating dependence on the federal government, and an extraordinarily high incidence of mental instability. As Didion uncovers sharp memories and incisively interprets California's messy politics and dire economics, she not only creates an electrifying inquiry into the spirit of a unique place and the soul of an uncommon family but also illuminates with piercing candor the dark side of the pioneer mythos, the very heart of the American mystique. Donna Seaman
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