A copy of Joan Didion’s “Where I Was From” rests on the sill above my bed, crowned by the Bible which my husband and I read as part of our daily devotions. One theme Didion explores in her book is the loss of cultural context that resulted from the conversion of California farms into tract homes, one innocent parcel at a time. By way of introduction, Didion establishes her connection to the land in California through stories of her ancestry. She pieces together with characteristic fastidiousness, narrative accounts of the migrations of her ancestors and others, from east to west, across the Nevada desert and over the Sierras, to the Sacramento Valley where Didion grew up. It is the dailiness of the emigrants’ hardships, as described by Didion, which make her writings so powerful. Illnesses and burials are tidily detailed alongside cullinary and artistic activities. Didion submits an account of things she inherited from her ascendents: a recipe for corn bread, one for India relish, a critique of blood pudding, a muslim applique, a photograph and a quilt. The quilter lost a child on her cross-country journey and Didion writes of the quilt, “In this quilt…were more stiches than I had ever seen in a quilt, a blinding and pointless compaction of stitches, and it occurred to me as I hung it that she must have finished it one day in the middle of the crossing, somewhere in the wilderness of her own grief and illness, and just kept on stitching.” I’m grateful for Didion’s writings, particularly when I travel historic routes in California and Nevada and try to imagine emigrant life there. I have my own contextual void: except for a great-aunt and me, my family remained fixed in New England. My great-aunt arrived to live in California before me but I never met her. I saw a photo of her once, a stout woman in a house dress, standing in front a Long Beach bungalow, in a neighborhood comprised of buildings that resembled tract homes.
“Where I Was From” includes commentary on moral dilemnas that arose from emigrants’ struggles to survive, yet omits reference to God or prayer. It does contain a brief anecdotal passage about an ancestral reverend bound for Oregon and I’ve determined, since reading the passage, that the route by which he traveled might have intersected the Nevada desert trail on which my husband and I were recently stranded. I, faced with the possibility of dying of dehydration, along with my husband and our dogs, can’t imagine having endured that trial without God; and in that respect, perhaps some of the emigrants about which Didion wrote, are akin to me.