The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation by Miriam Pawel, Bloomsbury, US $35.00, Pp 496, September 2018, ISBN 978-1632867339
Pat Brown was the beloved father who presided over California when it was fast expanding. The son, Jerry Brown, became the youngest governor in modern times. Three decades later, he returned as the oldest governor. The story of the Browns of California is the history of California and the vice versa. In The Browns of California, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Miriam Pawel weaves the history of California around the story of the Browns from the Gold Rush to Silicon Valley. She looks at the history of California through the prism of four generations of the Brown — from August Schuckman, the Prussian immigrant who crossed the Plains in 1852 and settled on a northern California ranch, to his great-grandson Jerry Brown, who reclaimed the family homestead one hundred forty years later.
In the spring of 1848, the population of San Francisco was 575 men, 177 women, and 60 children. Miriam Pawel says that the population of the city grew close to twenty-five thousand inhabitants within a year. Doctors and lawyers abandoned practices. Lured by the gold, tradesmen, laborers, and professionals from around the world arrived in California by droves. In the early days, the mines yielded as much as $50,000 a day in gold (more than $1.5 million in 2016 dollars), money that fueled the region’s explosive growth. The pioneers sought fortunes in gold, then they created the infrastructure and provided the services demanded by this brave new world. An American frontier that had been inching westward suddenly leapfrogged across the country.
In 1852, the corner of Sixteenth and H in Sacramento was just a vacant lot when August Schuckman reached Sacramento, a square of frontier dirt awaiting its destiny. Miriam Pawel says that August came to California seeking land, not gold. Within a decade, he staked his claim to a ranch sixty miles north of the state capital. August’s daughter was born there in 1878, the same year a prosperous Sacramento merchant moved into a majestic Victorian mansion he had built at Sixteenth and H. The empty lot had become the most elegant house in town. With more than one million residents, California needed a suitable residence for its governor. In 1903, the state bought the wedding cake house at Sixteenth and H for $32,500. Two years later, August’s daughter gave birth to her first son, Edmund Gerald Brown, the twelfth governor to live in the Mansion.
Miriam Pawel says that Sixteenth and H would become the coordinates where the history of the Golden State intersected with the destiny of August descendants. In 1959, Sen John Kennedy asked Edmund Brown — known as Pat Brown — for support and won the election by defeating Richard Nixon. When Pat Brown was voted out of office, the Mansion became another California boom-and-bust tale. Governor Ronald Reagan moved to a classic estate in the Fabulous Forties neighborhood shunning the house his wife called a “firetrap.” The mansion, eulogized by Sacramento native Joan Didion as “an extremely individual house,” perhaps her favorite in the world, became a museum. Visitors toured rooms full of relics of a dozen families had left behind such as the 1902 Steinway piano from George Pardee.
In 1975, a decade after his epiphany on the Mansion stairs, Edmund G. Brown Jr. became the youngest California governor in modern times. He preached “small is beautiful” opted for a Spartan apartment near the capitol. Miriam Pawel says that he soon became the state’s most popular governor, and just as quickly among those held in lowest esteem. In 2010, decades after he had left Sacramento, written off as a political has-been, Jerry Brown was elected governor once again. Under Jerry, the state finally began a renovation. Craftsmen restored the original Victorian details while they discreetly added modern plumbing, appliances, and solar panels. In 2015, the Brown moved, just in time to celebrate Christmas. A photo of August Schuckman sits on the fireplace mantel in the old music room.
The Browns of California is a fascinating story of California and the family that shaped its history for over a century. It provides new insights and perspectives on the history of California. Miriam Pawel’s career as a journalist/reporter and difficult-to-match scholarly credentials as a historian give her a definite assurance of style that enables her to present historical details in an enjoyable and easy-to-read prose. The major achievement of Miriam Pawel in this book is that she makes history enjoyable. It is a must-read for those interested in the history of California and its celebrated family.