This pleasant but superficial overview looks at California history from today’s perspective – it’s not a recounting of everything that happened, but of those things that “had to happen in order that California become what it is today.”
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While useful as an organizing tool, this vantage point tends to give the book a triumphalist tone, where whatever negative events happened were necessary in order for California to fulfill it’s (American capitalist) destiny.
The book is strongest on issues like the development of the water infrastructure, where it recounts in detail how the North and South halves of the state grappled with this thorny issue. Chapters on the growth of San Francisco and Los Angeles, including a quick history of automobile traffic, are solid and entertaining.
Starr offers good coverage of early politics, including land-grabs and railroad scams. But he scants the role of the original Peoples of the regions – presumably because they were not strictly necessary to the destiny of the state.
Likewise, he gives a good, quick survey of architecture – but scarcely mentions that the raw materials were obtained virtually for free by decimating the redwood forests, with unforeseeable environmental impacts on today’s California.
Perhaps most offensive is his celebration of the Golden Gate Bridge as a masterpiece comparable to the Parthenon. Given that over 1000 people have committed suicide from the bridge, we’re left wondering what exactly constitutes a Californian masterpiece?
Three stars for Kevin Starr – with hopes that a more thorough and balanced history of the state is recorded soon.