It was after this realization that I began trying to find the “point” of California, to locate some message in its history. I picked up a book of revisionist studies on the subject, but abandoned it on discovering that I was myself quoted, twice. You will have perhaps realized by now (a good deal earlier than I myself realized) that this book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely.

I can remember starting Primary School in 1984 and the small building of thin walls and low ceilings in the village of Rathcool, with a large poster of the 1916 revolutionaries hanging on the wall facing the entrance. This was the first sight upon entering the school and I grew to recognize the face of Padraig Pearse as a modern day quasi-saint. I grew to understand that my identity as an Irish child was as much a product of nationalism, as the Catholic faith with which I was raised. The priests who visited us in school were the symbolic descendants of those martyrs who hosted secret masses under the yoke of British rule, spreading God’s love under the threat of persecution. When I walked under the threshold of my secondary school building, significantly to be taught each of my subjects through Irish instead of English, my eye was drawn to the Latin motto painted on tiles in the floor Pro Deo et Patria.

Cut to the present day, with reports of the abuse of children by Catholic priests the world over; my country well on track for a double-dip recession due to the ineptitude and greed of our national leaders; the conflict in Northern Ireland perpetuating itself out of a constant recycling of hatred divorced from any ideological concerns – disillusioned seems too small a word to fit my state of mind. Thankfully that is why we have things like the Hark A Vagrant strip by the enormously talented Kate Beaton. Oh tis good to laugh.

Joan Didion’s book is informed by an investigation into the myths and aggrandized history that surrounds the ‘manifest destiny’, march to California. This is as much to situate herself as a product of this ‘immigration’, as a discussion of what makes up contemporary America.

As such the opening chapters of this book detail the efforts made by Didion’s ancestors to cross the Americas. There are startling stories of whole families throwing themselves across the wilderness, with the risk of starvation, attack by the creatures of the wild and being snowed in before crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There were also encounters between the colonists and the native Indians who lived on the plains. A relation of Didion’s leaves a diary describing one such meeting, where her husband entertained a curious group of Indians by demonstrating the use of fire-arms. This also served to warn them of their capability as an offensive weapon of course.

The fiction of Jack London is also examined, as much a product of the mythologising of America as a late contribution. Particular attention is drawn to his novel The Valley of the Moon. The unironical naming of the heroine Saxon Roberts suggests just how London regarded his own status as an ‘Old American, a representative of the civilizing force emanating from Britain. A second novel, The Octopus by Frank Norris, concerned with the grand narrative of ‘Wheat’, is chosen for its ambivalence. Popularly considered a simplistic attack on corporate America (one quote features that phrase so recurrent in Lovecraft’s purple prose ‘cyclopean’), Didion reveals that its passages identify the would-be romantic farm-hands as fellow exploiters of the land, who arrived too late to establish themselves as the train barons and such had.

Further sections of the book trace the development of middle-class life in the author’s home town, considered so anathema to American ideals of being classless, with aristocracy itself a supposedly abandoned European decadence. In as much as this is a study of American history, Didion’s book celebrates the incredible efforts of families and individuals to tame the landscape of California, while refusing to romanticise the results.

A thought-provoking and incisive dialogue with the past. For a historical study, this book is uncommonly moving.

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