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King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire

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When Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman set out to write the story of James Griffin Boswell II and his hold on the geographical heart of California, they knew they had a cagey subject on their hands. For a half century he had stood atop a secret empire while thumbing his nose at nature, politicians, labor unions and every journalist who had tried to lift the veil on the ultimate "factory in the fields.

Upon first meeting Boswell, it was easy to think of him as just another farmer ...

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Overview

When Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman set out to write the story of James Griffin Boswell II and his hold on the geographical heart of California, they knew they had a cagey subject on their hands. For a half century he had stood atop a secret empire while thumbing his nose at nature, politicians, labor unions and every journalist who had tried to lift the veil on the ultimate "factory in the fields.

Upon first meeting Boswell, it was easy to think of him as just another farmer tooling around in his dusty pickup. But this was a titan who owned more agricultural acreage and controlled more river water than any other land baron in the West. He grew more cotton than anyone on the planet, and he grew cities, too, including the first major retirement community in the country - Sun City, Arizona.

The King of California is a narrative that will carry readers from the Catholic fathers who built their missions up and down El Camino Real to the psychotic murderers incarcerated at the infamous Corcoran State Prison. Along the way, Arax and Wartzman tell the story of how the Boswells, a Georgia slave-owning family who migrated from California in the early 1920s, drained one of America's biggest lakes and carved out the richest cotton kingdom in the world. It is the biography of a forbidding landscape tamed by the vision of one man. From the clay bottoms of old Tulare lake to the corridors of Washington, Jim Boswell had won just about every battle. And yet the question lingered: Was his farming miracle worth the heavy price that America had paid?

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
I call it the nonfiction Grapes of Wrath.
Economist
Intelligently fair-minded.
Fresno Bee
There is no escaping the reach of this bittersweet story.
Los Angeles Times
Passionate, fair-minded, thought-provoking and groundbreaking...Thoroughly moving, deeply rendered and utterly trustworthy.
Booklist
Many stories, all rolled into one epic... Written in a lively style that matches the bigger-than-life qualities of its subject.
Portland Oregonian
The King of California has that feel of authenticity that only comes with shoe leather. It deserves notice.
Raleigh News and Observer
...an alluring and fascinating account... a rollicking tale...
The New Yorker
This meticulous narrative of the rise of the cotton magnate James G. Boswell begins in the nineteen-twenties, when his family was driven from Georgia by boll-weevil infestations and brought its plantation ways to California’s San Joaquin Valley. Not to be defeated by nature again, the Boswells leveed and dammed Tulare Lake, the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi, to the point of extinction. In its six-hundred-square-mile basin they grew cotton, while in Los Angeles office towers they built one of the country’s largest agricultural operations, swallowing small farms and multimillion-dollar subsidies with equal vigor. Arax and Wartzman strive for evenhandedness but acknowledge the costs of Big Ag—such as evaporation ponds with selenium levels so high that ducks are born with corkscrewed beaks and no eyes, and the recurrent “hundred-year floods,” stubborn attempts by the old lake to reassert itself.
From The Critics
The tale of so many agencies, so many agri-barons and so many economic forces tangling in so baroque a fashion is a forbidding bit of reporting, to put things mildly, and it's to Arax and Wartzman's considerable credit that they are able to chronicle so much of it so clearly and thoroughly … one is grateful all the same to have such a crucial chapter in California history fleshed out in such impressive detail. —Chris Lehmann
The Washington Post
The tale of so many agencies, so many agri-barons and so many economic forces tangling in so baroque a fashion is a forbidding bit of reporting, to put things mildly, and it's to Arax and Wartzman's considerable credit that they are able to chronicle so much of it so clearly and thoroughly … one is grateful all the same to have such a crucial chapter in California history fleshed out in such impressive detail. —Chris Lehmann
San Francisco Chronicle
This story is byzantine in its complexity and Florentine in its corruption...the book operates like a well-planned interview.
San Diego Union-Tribune
With obstinate bravura, Arax and Wartzman rip down curtains that have veiled this valley...For scope and readability, these guys shine."
Library Journal
Jim Boswell is the biggest farmer in California and probably in the United States. For most of the last century, his family succeeded in keeping its business affairs private, but Los Angeles Times journalists Arax and Wartzman have finally persuaded Boswell to talk about his operations. In addition to interviews, they have used court filings, archival documents and records, and published sources to tell the story of how a few cotton planters chased from the South by the boll weevil settled around Tulare Lake in Kings County, CA, and turned it into one of the foremost cotton-producing areas in the world. Here also is the story of those who worked those fields-Okies, African Americans, and Mexicans-and the cotton workers' strike of 1933. To round out the story, Arax and Wartzman recount the environmental battles over dams, canals, and pollutants that began with the New Deal and continue to this day. Boswell has been reluctant to talk to anyone, and the authors should be commended for getting him on the record. The result is a fair and balanced treatment, to the point of being nonjudgmental about environmental issues. As much social and environmental history as business history, this accessibly written book is recommended for all California libraries and for large collections on American agricultural and social history.-Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586480288
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 10/14/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 560
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Arax is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine and a former senior writer at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of West of the West. Rick Wartzman is the Director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University in California, a fellow of the New America Foundation, and the author of Obscene in the Extreme. He was formerly the business editor for the Los Angeles Times and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2004

    minor errors

    Although I have spent my life in the San Joaquin Valley, not far from Corcoran, I discovered some interesting new information in this book. However, errors such as putting Delano in Tulare County when it is in Kern County, and a few other real obvious klunkers, made me want to check things twice. Sometimes the authors let their own agenda get in the way of the facts, and they use a bit of hyperbole in description, but the facts of the draining of Tulare Lake, the damming of the four major rivers, and the pre-eminence of WATER as the motivating force in our desert land are very well explained. Not least, this book is a good and entertaining read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2003

    a Great book

    the King of California is the non fiction equivalent of 'The Grapes of Wrath'. It's a richly reported, wonderfully written story of California's Central Valley. Very Highly recommended.

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