FIVE FIRES by David Wyatt


Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California
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 A big-picture view of California's history, told with verve and considerable learning. Wyatt, a native Californian and professor of English at the University of Maryland, ranges freely among several disciplines, including history, literature, linguistics, and natural history, to shape a panoptic account of California history. Wyatt views the state as having been shaped by a complex of catastrophes--ethnic clashes, ecological conquests, fires, and earthquakes--and discerns their influence still working itself out today. There is, he demonstrates, nothing new under the sun, citing the writings of early politicians who founded their careers on a ``rhetoric of purity and exclusion'' (think of Bob Dornan) and the recollections of 19th-century immigrants, who arrived in the Golden State intending to remake themselves, just as their equally optimistic counterparts do today. Wyatt returns again and again to the theme of cultural collision, convincingly threading together discussions of Spanish chronicles and early American military reports with incisive readings of Robert Towne's script for the movie Chinatown and Raymond Chandler's L.A.-noir novels. ``California remains the place,'' Wyatt writes, ``where Americans draw the battle lines over difference''; witness the trial of O.J. Simpson, whom, refreshingly, Wyatt does not invoke, and the Zoot Suit riots of the 1940s, which he considers at length. He combs an astonishing trove of overlooked sources, including the memoirs of the Native American chronicler Pablo Tac and of Chinese, Japanese, African-American, and Hispanic immigrants over the years. It does not add up to a happy story, and state boosters will not be pleased with the author's view of a California shaped then and now by virulent racism and official malfeasance at every turn. Wyatt has much to relate, and he does so exceptionally well, yielding a happy (and rare) instance when the reader emerges wishing that a longish book would go on just a bit longer. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-201-14479-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1997


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