(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Like much of Joan Didion’s best work, Where I Was From performs a precarious balancing act: It manages to be simultaneously deeply intimate and broadly political. The book is both a personal memoir and an exploration of the big issues that define the author’s home turf, the state of California. The opening paragraphs contain a capsule history of the eventful westward journey of Didion’s pioneer family, focusing particularly on the women in the family and tracing back six generations the pedigree of her famous migraines. She tells the charmingly absurd tale of how her cousin donated to the Pacific University Museum the old potato masher that their ancestors carried across the plains. It is through her personal and family attachments to the place, Didion tells the reader, that she “began trying to find the ‘point’ of California, to locate some message in its history.”

Personal and family history, however, quickly give way to other stories. Didion tells, for instance, of the immigrants who, as they draw near to the promised land, come across an abandoned adolescent girl and her sick brother, left by a previous group of pioneers to be found or to die. These two abandoned children, along with many other characters and incidents, are mentioned in passing, are then left, and then again returned to at various appropriate moments in the book. The old potato masher, likewise, returns several times as an ironic icon. By approaching California’s myths from various angles and layering small snippets of stories upon one another, Didion allows the bigger picture to emerge. The technique is a familiar one to her fans, who will recognize it—along with some actual settings and incidents—from her best-known essays, including “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” both published in 1968.

Where I Was From is, in part, a series of verbal portraits of people with a real stake in the California dream: novelist Jack London, painter Thomas Kinkade, generations of ranchers and railroad men and developers, and the author’s own family. In painting these portraits, Didion exposes what she believes to be the very heart of the California conundrum, the disconnect between the steadfast belief of the state’s citizens in their individual freedom and self-determination and its nearly total reliance on government (mostly federal government) handouts in the form of tax relief, subsidies, and defense and building contracts. In describing many individual Californians, including earlier versions of herself, she allows the reader to perceive the warping of internal logic that allows these people to continue insisting they are free and self-determined, in spite of the pervasive evidence to the contrary.

Throughout this book, as in her earlier work, Didion uses the small, trenchant observation to lead her readers to the big picture. In discussing the aerospace industry, for instance, she focuses upon the Southern California community of Lakewood, planned and built by that industry. In the late 1990’s this community faced a series of troubling reports of sexual harassment and rape perpetrated by a gang of youths who called themselves the Spur Posse. Didion contends, without quite making it seem a contention, that the collapse of the local industry is what has led to desperation among the local youth and their subsequent antisocial behavior. Her research for this portion of the book is wide-ranging enough to present her readers with the low SAT scores of students from Lakewood High School as well as quotations from the alleged criminals, their alleged victims, and the parents of both. All of this is aligned with statistics and interviews about the consistent decline in employment and salaries in Lakewood. Characteristically, she tracks not just the fact of the aerospace industry’s collapse but also the language used to describe that fact—from “correctives” to “restructuring,” further evidence of the citizens’ unwillingness to face squarely the problems of their communities.

Where I Was From examines the persistent—and utterly untrue—notion that California is rich and that therefore poverty in any of its citizens must be either a temporary condition or a problem somehow less serious than it might be...

(The entire section is 1754 words.)