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A land rich in lore, rich in cotton, poor in spirit

The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire; Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman; PublicAffairs: 560 pp., $30

October 12, 2003|Malcolm Margolin | Malcolm Margolin is the publisher of Berkeley-based Heyday Books, which specializes in works on California. Recent books include "At Work: The Art of California Labor," "California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present" and "Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature from California."

Although arguments for and against the 160-acre limit have raged for decades, agricultural empires were not built on intellectual niceties. The dynamiting of levees; the terrorism of corporate farmers against union organizing, intimidation and outright murder; the near-total contempt for health and environment; the cynical manipulation of legislative and legal bodies; and a wiliness in capturing government subsidies were among the tools that built the farming empires of the Central Valley.

As for the centerpiece of the story, Boswell hardly seems likable. But neither is he an embodiment of evil. Arax and Wartzman acknowledge his work on behalf of the Nature Conservancy, his insistence on paying his salaried employees relatively well, his other charitable deeds. Yet while the authors make heroic efforts to be impartial, one cannot help but feel moral outrage seeping through the paragraphs -- outrage at people's dreams turned putrid and a landscape poisoned in the midst of such stunning agricultural wealth.

"The King of California" is a thoroughly moving, deeply rendered and utterly trustworthy book. Perhaps because of the authors' backgrounds as reporters, one feels that this multilayered account is rooted not in ideology or advocacy but in anecdote, history and a sense of dispassionate investigative reporting. Its implied conclusion is thus all the more powerful: that however arguable the case for bigness, its consequences have been and continue to be hugely and reprehensively destructive.

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