Western History & Genealogy Blog

New Books in Western History (9.7.09)

Recent works reviewed in major newspapers and other outlets, including books on young women crossing cultural lines, wizards of the imagination, and visions of the less-than-angelic history of Los Angeles and its residents, both real or fictional. 

In the Denver Post, Clayton Moore reviews Helen Thorpe’s Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, which he finds “an insightful meditation on the issue of immigration, legal and illegal, in America.” Thorpe, wife of Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, traces four women from their high school graduation to their time as students at the University of Denver, with the debate, both local and national, over immigration an ever-present, and often unsettling, theme in the life of each. Copies of Just Like Us have been ordered for DPL’s circulating collection and the Western History & Genealogy department's collection.

Reviews appear in NewWest and the Irish Times of Margot Mifflin’s The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, a biography of the 13-year-old taken captive in 1851, during her Mormon family’s emigration to California. Along with her seven-year-old sister, Mary Ann, who subsequently died, Olive Oatman was later traded to the Mohaves, but ultimately ransomed and returned. Mifflin’s title refers to Oatman’s subtle facial tattoo, a permanent denominator of difference for a life lived out in Victorian America. As Jenny Shank notes in NewWest, Mifflin argues persuasively that Oatman willingly received the tattoo, and that and other facts suggest the depth and conviction of her integration into Mohave life. Her return to white society saw Oatman become an object of fascination, and the subject of a fantastic accounts of her captivity. A copy of Mifflin’s The Blue Tattoo has been ordered for the Western History & Genealogy Department. Compare it with Brian McGinty’s The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival (2005), with copies in DPL’s circulating collection and reference copies in the department’s collection.

Notices of Rebecca Loncraine’s The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum appear in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. Longcraine’s book is the second major work on Baum this year, coming after Evan Schwartz’s Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered America’s Great Story. And in the San Francisco Chronicle, David Perlman reviews a biography of another visionary, Frank Oppenheimer. Frank, brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the American atom bomb, was himself a physicist, an academic, a onetime Colorado rancher and high school teacher, and architect of the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s remarkable and pace-setting science museum. K.C. Cole’s Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up details each of these lives, in a work that Perlman finds “at once an absorbing - even dramatic - biography of Cole's hero, and a wonderfully anecdotal history of the museum itself.” Copies of Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens are available in DPL's circulating collection, and a copy has been ordered for the department's collection.

In the Washington Post, Carolyn See reviews of Richard Rayner’s A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age, an examination of the City of Angels in the 1920s and 30s. “To love this book you have to love the wonderful novels of Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy,” See writes, “where only the flimsiest veneer of freshness and glamour covers a decaying, even disgusting reality. If you can go along with that point of view, this social history will be a bonanza for you, a boundless source of creepy joy.” Copies of A Bright and Guilty Place are available from DPL’s circulating collection, and a reference copy is available in the department’s collection.

In turn, in the Los Angeles Times Richard Rayner reviews a new edition of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, first published in 1939. Rayner regards West's work, along with Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and John Fante’s Ask the Dust, as one of three books that “distilled distinctly and in very different ways the city that was being written about, and have continued to dictate how Los Angeles is perceived today.”