The Fires That Forged The Golden State

Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California

By David Wyatt


288 pages, $25

This book has an intriguing thesis: that the history of the most populous and influential state in America can best be understood as a series of conflagrations - actual, political, social, and emotional.

In "Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe and the Shaping of California," David Wyatt starts with the Spanish conquest of upper California, followed soon by the American conquest. The native Indians are obliterated. Wyatt draws on a wonderful piece of natural history to epitomize this period: The now-ubiquitous wild oat was sown as the Spanish moved in, its seeds carried in the dung of their horses and cattle. The native grasses were no match for it.

It's a fascinating beginning for the reader taken by this idea of history swept along by flames. And many of the following chapters are equally interesting - in concept. It's hard to go wrong writing about such powerful events as the 1849 Gold Rush, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the water wars in southern California, on up through the riots in Watts and South Central Los Angeles. In between are some valuable insights into the anguished history of Chinese and Japanese Californians.

The trouble in all this is Wyatt's means of exploring this history - through one drawn-out passage of literary criticism after another. The authors whose work is mined by Wyatt include Richard Henry Dana, Joaquin Miller, Bret Harte, Jade Snow Wong, Amy Tan, Richard Rodriguez, and Raymond Chandler.

He also plunges into the more visual art of photographers such as Ansel Adams, as well as the performance art of Anna Deavere Smith. All are remarkable observers of California. But the constant analysis of others' writings or art sometimes makes the book less a vivid encounter with history than an extended classroom lecture.

Talking about another writer who gave shape to California experience, Joan Didion, he comments, "Hers were the strategies I had long admired ... the strategies of a spectator, a critic, someone who with immense intelligence and an almost unlawful verbal gift, stands back to let it all be."

Wyatt's strategy in "Five Fires" may not rise to this ideal, but strewn along the stretches of criticism are nuggets about the devastation caused by hydraulic mining in the late 1800s, the vicious treatment of Chinese immigrants by white Californians (also migrants), and the visionary engineer who brought water from north to south. There is fire here, but it frequently gets doused by the verbiage.

* Keith Henderson is a Monitor editorial writer.

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