Whatever the allure of the American dream that draws people to seek out a better life for themselves and their generations to come, the California dream goes higher, broader and deeper.
From gold rushes to land rushes, to dust bowl migrations to aerospace and digital technology, California moves in superlatives. And, in the Central Valley, those superlatives lean toward agriculture.
Mark Arax knows the stories of the Central Valley like few others. His instinct for finding stories draws him to a small shack by the side of the road, to a bicycling coach and fleet-footed farm boys in McFarland, to the 25,000-square-foot mansion of the pomegranate king who doesn’t give interviews.
Traveling the length and breadth of the valley and beyond, he sees and hears, he wonders and investigates.
Tulare Lake, once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River, is virtually gone. Arax’s curiosity about the fate of the lake led him to the man who was the biggest farmer in America, the family who drained the lake to grow cotton and build a secret empire.
Arax and co-author Rick Wartzman wrote the Saroyan Prize and California Book Award-winning “The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire” after years of research, including breaking through Boswell’s wall of silence that had kept his story hidden from the public.
This was Arax’s second book. His first was much more personal. “In My Father’s Name” tells the story of his own family and the corruption in his hometown of Fresno. It tells of his father’s murder when Arax was only 15, still unsolved 20 years later, when he returned to search for the truth and try to release his own obsession with this quest.
The story of Arax’s family and the San Joaquin began with his grandfather in the days of the Armenian genocide.
In leaving Constantinople, Aram Arax had a choice. He could travel to France to attend the Sorbonne or could be mesmerized by the California Dream that his uncle described with grapes
like jade eggs and watermelons as big as boats. He chose California, arriving in 1920.
As a migrant worker, he followed the harvests. After about four years, he was able to buy a vineyard west of Fresno and later expand to more farms, raising his children in the rural life. In the late 1950s, the family sold the farms and opened the Peacock chain of grocery stores, eventually losing out to bigger chains.
“That’s when my dad bought a restaurant and turned it into the hottest rock and roll joint between San Francisco and L.A.,” Arax said.
“I was a kid, and Chuck Berry came to play. I wanted so badly to go, but he wouldn’tlet me.”
It was there in his office in the bar with the odd name, Ara’s Apartments, that Arax’s father was gunned down by two men. Most everything else about the shooting remained a mystery for a long time.
As part of filling the void left by his father’s death, Arax began taping the stories of his grandfathers and others.
“I was captivated by our story, the genocide, the California odyssey,” he said. “How we had reinvented ourselves here. And in reinventing ourselves, we had reinvented the land.”
Arax received some advice on writing and a sense of the writer’s life from a friend of his grandfather’s — William Saroyan.
“I was telling him some of the big words I was mastering,” Arax said. “And he’s sort of laughing and saying ‘count the words I use in my stories. I use no more than 300.’ In other words, you don’t need big words to write beautiful literature.”
Arax also said Saroyan told him that “writing is lonely, but it isn’t abject loneliness because there is always a connection to larger things.”
Arax went on to get his degrees in journalism at CSU Fresno and Columbia University and to work for the Baltimore Evening Sun, then the Los Angeles Times. After three or four years at
the Times, he took a leave of absence to return to Fresno to work on “In My Father’s Name.”
He sold the book idea to Simon & Schuster and took close to six years to write it. During that time, he also went back to work for the Times as the bureau chief for the Central Valley.
“My editor said we need someone in Central California.
It’s a fascinating place,” Arax said. “I considered the job like a foreign correspondent. I was telling the story of Central California to the rest of California and, in those times, the world.”
He found one of those stories in McFarland. The sons of farmworkers, who toiled in the fields by day and ran through them as the sun set, had brought home five state cross country championships in five years. Arax’s story of the championship runners and their coach, Jim White, was sold as a movie but never made it through the complexities of Hollywood. (The Kevin Costner version came years later.)
Driving on Highway 99 again, he stopped to learn the story of a shack that looked more like it belonged in the 1930s Mississippi delta. There he began his research on the “Black Okies” who followed the cotton trail west.
“No one had told their story,” he said.
After writing a series of articles for the Times, he incorporated their stories into his book about the Boswell empire.
Arax’s third book, “West of the West,” is composed of short stories from locations throughout California. It is his first book to cover an area broader than the Central Valley.
“The last drama in that book is the solving of my father’s murder 30 years after,” he said.
His latest book, “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California,” is a San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times bestseller. Reviewers agree that it is a deeply important book delving into what California is, and that Arax, with his background and talents,
is uniquely qualified to be its author. Rolling Stone called him “a Steinbeck for the 21st century.”
“It is a grand telling of the story of the invention of California, first as a myth, then as a real place,” he said. “That invention necessitated the grandest water-moving system the world had ever seen. It was — and is — magnificent. The system is now cracking. What I do with this book is I go inside those cracks.”
More houses in the desert, more almond trees can’t continue unabated into the future, he said. As he wrote, when it comes to water, “the resource is finite. The greed isn’t.”
Arax follows the trail of those who have worked the land and the water of the Golden State — including his own family — from the gold miners, wheat farmers, the family farmers growing fruit trees and vineyards, to mega farmers like Boswell with his cotton and Stewart Resnick with pomegranates, pistachios, almonds, citrus and more.
Resnick is said to use more water than any other farming company in the state, more even than the largest cities that survive on imported water.
“Something has to give,” Arax said. “That is the tension of this book, the kind of drama that pulls you through.”
In addition to writing books, Arax has started a publishing company, West of West Books. He recently released Tanya Nichols and Bill McEwen’s “Stinger.”
The publishing house is part of his West of West Center, an online museum of the people who built the valley. Arax is digitizing the exhaustive collection of tapes he has accumulated in his investigations. He hopes to get more people involved.
“I can only do so much to tell the stories,” he said. “With the publishing house and the center, we can tell that story.”