What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Saturday, November 16, 2002
What I Finished Reading Today:
Adobe Days by Sarah Bixby Smith
As an enthusiastic transplant to Los Angeles, and someone who really loves the city, I've been playing catch-up since I moved here 11 years ago, in learning about the city's history. The year before I came west, I picked up a book called Los Angeles Stories: Great Writers on the City (edited by John Miller), which contains excerpts from various literary works about L.A. I re-read the book earlier this year, and was so taken with many of the pieces that I've slowly been searching out the original books from which they were lifted. This is one.
Adobe Days is a memoir written by Sarah Bixby Smith, a woman whose father, Llewellyn Bixby, migrated west to the wilds of California in 1851 - on foot, with his cousins and a flock of 1,800 sheep. Bixby Smith says her father arrived just slightly too late to be called a real pioneer, but the animals he brought were still a novelty in the area and provided the stock for a very successful business, which eventually helped the family become one of the pillars of early Los Angeles and its surrounding area. Sarah's life, which began on her father's sheep ranch - the Rancho San Justo - in the 1860s, paralled the development of southern California, and as her family later moved from the rancho into the developing areas around Los Angeles, and eventually into the burgeoning city itself, both she and the town grew up together.
In her early years on the wide-open rancho, Bixby Smith developed a love of the outdoors and was an energetic explorer. As she notes, this was rare for girls of her day, but her freedom and natural curiosity were encouraged by her parents. In fact, she quite glibly describes several rather risky childhood pursuits, including how she would poison squirrels with strychnine, boil them, and skin and dress the meat when playing at imitating the work of the sheep ranchers who surrounded her. (She also wound up with "a large collection of squirrel skins tacked up on the barn.")
Much of the book is spent on the Rancho and in places outside Los Angeles, including Long Beach, which at the time was just beginning to be considered as a home for the major harbor it is today...but my favorite parts, simply because of my own interests in the city, are the descriptions of L.A. itself. As Bixby Smith notes, "This was the period of the beginnings of things," and it's quite fascinating for anyone familiar with today's Los Angeles to read her accounts of such simple events as her stroll to school, in which, "I daily walked along a Broadway of cottages and gardens and occasional churches." (To anyone familiar with today's Broadway - lined with hulking old commercial buildings now often empty on all but their ground floors, which are crowded with cut-rate retail establishments, teeming with mostly immigrant shoppers during the day and locked down tight and silent behind heavy steel gates at night - this pastoral image is nothing less than shocking.)
But the author is careful to note, even looking back on such peaceful memories, that the "Queen of the Angels" was not entirely idyllic, by any means. In fact, she says, "she was angelic only in name" and the young city was "a typical frontier town with primitive flat-roofed dwellings of sun-dried bricks, much like those built in ancient Assyria or Palestine. Salons and gambling houses were out of proportion in number, and there were murders every day." (And this was at a time when the population was just creeping upwards of 10,000.)
Despite the work's inclusion in Los Angeles Stories, Bixby Smith is not a "great" writer. But her narrative has an honest, homespun charm that fits the subject matter well. And she does have a keen sense of humor, which enlivens her observations (e.g. at one point, in describing a rickety horse-drawn bus that transported students in the early days of Pomona college (where she was one of the earliest students), she says, "It must have been a gift bus, into whose mouth one must not look enquiringly").
All in all, I found the book both enlightening and enjoyable...and even found myself envying the author, just a bit, for her good fortune at being present at "the beginnings of things." I was also grateful for her skill in recognizing that good fortune and recording her observations for those of us who came too late to see this fascinating time in the history of our fascinating home.