A wacky, illuminating exploration of the political and cultural currents swirling around four public monuments.
Lurking behind even the most seemingly innocent object is a story of power and exploitation, avers self-styled “radical historian” Frank (History/Univ. of Calif., Santa Cruz; Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America, 2005, etc.). She opens with a dazzling consideration of the redwood trunk that has long attracted tourists to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. In the 1950s, someone added date markers connecting some of the redwood’s rings to great historical events—almost all of which, Frank notes, involved “conquest, invasions, or expansion.” The preservationists who campaigned to save the redwood trees from extinction “projected onto these innocent trees…the notion of human history as the rise and fall of civilizations.” Many of them were also eugenicists, urging Americans to practice “selective breeding” in order to create a fit race that could lead the world. Another fascinating chapter looks at Santa Cruz’s Cave Train Ride, a child’s amusement-park entertainment with an adult cult following. Built in 1961, the ride features cavemen and cavewomen playing cards and hanging out at the Laundromat. Frank sensitively examines the race and gender scripts on which these vignettes draw, shedding light along the way on such diverse cultural icons as The Flintstones, Li’l Abner and Clan of the Cave Bear. The final two sections are more predictable. Frank’s investigation of two giant stone cats along California’s Highway 17 quickly leads her into a saga of “the unequal politics of history” as embodied in the relationship between the wealthy couple that commissioned the sculptures and their domestic servants. Her discussion of the Pulgas Water Temple at the Crystal Springs Reservoir focuses unsurprisingly on its function as “a charming but powerful pawn in the grand scheme of California’s environmental politics.” Nonetheless, Frank’s personal engagement and punchy prose enliven even the slighter chapters.
Will delight nostalgic Californians—and make all readers think differently about the monuments in their own towns.