CALIFORNIA UNCOVERED: Stories for the 21st Century

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Edited by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, William Justice, and James Quay
Heyday Books ($15.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

In California Uncovered, an array of authors explore one of the most mythic areas of our country. Created by the California Council for the Humanities, which hopes to share the "reality beneath the headlines, statistics, and stereotypes about the state and its people," this collection of stories is a multicultural People's History of the California Dream, an anthology that warns people not to romanticize the Golden State.

According to James Quay, the Council's Executive Director, "No other region in the modern world has undergone the population change California has experienced in recent decades. Only half of the people now living in California were born here. Of the rest, half came here from another state, half from another country. As a result of this immigration, California is the most populous and most ethnically diverse state in the nation." Indeed, one might say there are many Californias—not only Northern and Southern, but also rich and poor, white and non-white, urban and rural and suburban, gay and straight, and Republican and Democrat.

Quay finds a hopeful note amidst this diversity, but the anthology makes one pause about relocating to the Golden State. Included are writings about being poor, working the agricultural fields, life in the inner city, illegal immigrants who are sent home, gang violence, difficult childhood experiences, and alienation. One does not find many Utopian visions, and also not explored in depth is California's diversity of natural environments—the coast, mountains, hills, valleys, forests, and desert shared by residents and tourists alike.

While there are a number of collections of writings about California, California Uncovered seeks to interpret the Golden State in a more postmodern way. Quay, in an excellent section of interviews with a variety of citizens that nicely offsets the stories by professional writers, clarifies the issues when he asks people to respond to a riff on Samuel Huntington's comment about the United States: "Critics say that California is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. California is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope."

Filled with fine and engaging writing, the anthology includes selections by canonical writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, Robert Hass, Robinson Jeffers, Richard Rodriguez, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, in addition to younger and lesser-known voices. "Becoming Californian" is one of the anthology's major themes; Rodriguez writes that leaving home is "almost an imperative for writers and other misfits. The subordinate theme was that impossibility of return—you can't go home again." An excerpt from Steinbeck's Travels with Charley confirms this. Steinbeck had a complicated relationship with California during his life; he resented newcomers to the state, which is especially evident in East of Eden, yet he took their side in The Grapes of Wrath, and was loathed in his hometown of Salinas because he criticized rural California.

If you are thinking of coming to California, one can gather from this book that there are certain things you should not do upon arriving. Think twice about kissing the pavement, it was likely spit upon. Those good jobs, well, there are residents and their children waiting for them. Those beautiful people, there are residents waiting for them too. Not everybody, even in San Francisco, is liberal; there is no longer plenty of room; and you may not like your neighbors. California is beautiful, but as this anthology reminds, it is also perilous. California does not open everyone with open arms.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005