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Review-a-Day
Esquire
Wednesday, October 15th, 2003


 

Where I Was From 1st Edition

by Joan Didion

California Story

A review by Anna Godbersen

Joan Didion has done much to complicate the idea of a California consciousness; she takes the subject up again in Where I Was From. As the title suggests, this work is often autobiographical, but Didion (whose own person so often seems spectral to the story she is telling), cuts it with a miscellany of Californian history and recent events. Beginning with a grandmother (who is born in 1766 and dies later on in the first sentence) and ending with her own mother, Didion portrays a family with grit, eccentricity, and a fierce sense of independence. These were people who crossed the plains in winter, passing down such artifacts as a recipe for blood pudding (and "blood pudding" is not a euphemism.) They settled in Sacramento, where Didion was born, owned ranches and drew distinctions between themselves and the "new people." In her earlier work, Didion gave an insider's version of a wild, enigmatic California; here, she evokes the myth so as to question it. Not only Didion's own legacy, but any symbol of the golden state (the agriculture, the railroad, the landscape as rendered by Thomas Kinkade) is fair game for interrogation. At the center of the book is a reading of the Spur Posse incident of 1993, in which the violence and misogyny of a group of young men is used to reveal something about the state today. The Spurs came out of Lakewood, CA, a community planned for workers at the aerospace and defense contractor's plants that flourished on government contracts during WWII and the Cold War, and were now being slowly abandoned. This community, it turned out, was not innately ingenious or independent. Like much of California's seeming prosperity, it had in fact been built with the Fed's support. When that support was withdrawn, Lakewood's citizens were left resentful and with very little to do. This is the theme of Where I Was From, if a single theme could be pinned to prose this rich: the secret dependencies of a place mythically aloof; our reliance on those we turn from.


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