Death Valley and the Amargosa (Magill's Literary Annual 1987)
Richard E. Lingenfelter’s unstated thesis in his comprehensive history of Death Valley is that the restless American pioneer spirit and fantasy thrived in a vacuum. There are 470 pages of text, 110 pages of footnotes, and fifty-four pages of bibliography that make up the author’s very tangible story of illusion. Lingenfelter tells of credulity and fantasy at work in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. The void this faith inhabited is the lowest geographical elevation in the United States—282 feet below sea level by latest survey—where summer heat scalds and the air holds no moisture. Sitting in shade, if one finds shade in Death Valley, the basking visitor can lose more than two gallons of water to dehydration in eight hours. Climatic extremes to the side, Lingenfelter’s subject is what happened when this innocently empty world was invaded by white men in the nineteenth century.
Ancient campsites argue that humans have lived in Death Valley for at least ten thousand years. A variety of Indian tribes, including Shoshones, Paiute, and Kawaiisu, subsisted on pinenuts, mesquite beans, jackrabbits, chuckwallas, and an occasional bighorn sheep. If pinenuts were scarce the Indians suffered; if not, they thrived. Summers were hot, but the rest of the year was pleasant, and the Panamint Mountains towering to eleven thousand feet on the valley’s west side provided an escape from dreadful summer days. Living...
(The entire section is 2295 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1987)
Booklist. LXXXIII, September 1, 1986, p. 26.
California Magazine. XI, July, 1986, p. 32.
Choice. XXIV, November, 1986, p. 370.
Kirkus Reviews. LIV, May 1, 1986, p. 701.
The New York Times Book Review. XCI, August 24, 1986, p. 15.
(The entire section is 27 words.)