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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | NONFICTION

ENDANGERED DREAMS The Great Depression in California By Kevin Starr; Oxford University Press: 402 pp., $35

December 29, 1996|T. H. WATKINS

"Endangered Dreams," the fourth volume in Kevin Starr's resolute march through the state's American history is narrative history in the grand tradition, and what Starr is giving us is stories. Not many historians these days seem to take any joy in their craft; most prefer to assume the stance of a stolid objectivity that drowns passion in a sea of explication. Not Starr; he is having fun.

In California, most of the themes of the Great Depression were written large, and Starr makes the most of them, seizing the threads of history with such whole-souled fervor that you can almost see him sweating gleefully as he spins them into an elaborate tapestry of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Here is the story of California's industrial labor movement. Less familiar, but more superbly rendered here, is the story of the great communist-led agricultural strikes in the Imperial Valley and the San Joaquin Valley, each crushed with a brutality that the New Dealers, distancing themselves from radical excess, generally ignored.

The triumph of narration and understanding that Starr has given us in the crowded, surpassingly lively pages of "Endangered Dreams" [is a] defining portrait of a state in which the bravery, cowardice, nobility and greed of hard times mixed in a brew of unmatched power.

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