For a long time, the best way to understand California’s history has been to read Kevin Starr. Whether you power through his magisterial seven-volume series, Americans and the California Dream, or just read his single volume version, California: A History, Starr has set the standard for comprehensive and readable accounts of who we are, how we got here, and what we are about. 

But now there is another pathway: through one of a handful of smaller, more idiosyncratic, but no less powerful works that interrogate the state not by means of big historical panoramas but rather by putting a limited number of discrete places and events into sharp focus. The advantage of this approach lies in being able to drill deeper in one place, to tease out the complex interplay between historic events and the myth-making that comes in their wake, a process that obscures or buries what went on in the first place in layers of other, contradictory meanings — and which is far harder to discern from the higher altitudes of conventional history. Joan Didion’s Where I Was From is one such a book, a highly personal mix of genres, including history, autobiography, and acutely-observed reportage.

California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History is another, and it is just as unique in form and voice. Written by Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor Emeritus of American History at Stanford University, and the author of a shelf of acclaimed works on the American West, the book is illustrated with photographs by his son Jesse Amble White, and focuses tightly on a group of carefully chosen specific sites where the deep structure of California — its multiple identities, its inequalities of property and power, its painful contrasts between promise and reality, and between its prodigious natural resources and the damage continuously done to them — can be revealed. 

Where Starr’s mode of writing California history is comparable to making feature films on a grand scale, White father and son’s here is like turning the pages of an extended family photo album. Indeed, the jumping off point for each piece of writing in the book is a photo: all are landscapes, devoid of people, but filled with markers of their efforts and intentions — signs, buildings, machines, infrastructure, and everywhere natural landforms altered by people. The photos are beautiful and evocative, but not descriptive; contrary to the cliché, they do not speak 1,000 words; they are mute. “The photographs hint at stories but they cannot tell them by themselves,” writes White. “Research is necessary for that.”

And research he does, in the old school mode of patient archival sifting, digging, finding the human stories and voices that alone can animate the photos and give them voice. Without history, there are no words: “We can only think in the present moment, but the present moment is always awash in memories and ideas produced by the past,” he writes in one place. “Our societies, economies, politics, and cultures are composed mostly of what the dead have done,” he writes in another.

Broadly chronological, but partially wandering back and forth across time, including many forays into the present, White proceeds through a series of beginnings to a series of present moments heavily weighted by the past. 

In Point Reyes, somewhere in the vicinity of which the English pirate Sir Francis Drake repaired his ship in 1579 before sailing on, White traces the numerous attempts by 19th and 20th century Californians to pin down the precise location, in spite of thin and contradictory evidence, in hopes of proving a white, Protestant “founding” of California. To make Drake California’s originator, before the Spanish missionaries, would justify the Americans’ own expropriation of the land, and the genocide they perpetrated in order to complete it. “The search for Drake had never really been about history; it was about myth….It explained how the United States came to be not just white but Anglo-Saxon; how the land was not taken but given.” The search for Drake’s landing spot remains inconclusive.

 In the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County, he unwinds the myth-making of the Franciscan padres, who sought to justify the subjection and mass deaths of their native charges. The Anglo-Americans who later appropriated the mission lands also spun a new “Mission Myth” to justify their own conquest and make California an attractive magnet of real estate speculation. 

In the San Joaquin Valley, he uncovers the grim sequence of events behind the Americans’ invasion of Indian lands, and their transformation of formerly rich, diverse landscapes into desolated zones of agricultural monopoly, prisons, pollution, and appalling racialized poverty. Along the way, the original perpetrators and those who continue to benefit constructed a distorted narrative, turning villains into heroes, victims into aggressors, and injustice into virtue — in short, turning history into self-serving myth.

In contrast to the self-congratulatory image of the Golden State as a land of individual opportunity and enlightened reform, White shows that California was most powerfully shaped by predatory railroads, robber barons, corrupt politicians, subsidized corporations, and hucksters, engaging in endless rounds of self-dealing, vast land frauds, and even more vast water frauds. In our own day, according to White, the forces behind the “violence and injustice” that shaped California “have changed form, but not disappeared.”

White tells his stories with economy, but nevertheless with considerable nuance, subtlety, wry humor, and in fierce confrontation with the unvarnished truth. As its title puns, California Exposures is a powerfully muckraking work, in the great California tradition of Upton Sinclair, Carey McWilliams, and Mike Davis. If one has time for only one book on the history of California, this one stakes a strong claim to being it.

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