What Lies Beneath: California Pioneer Cemeteries and Graveyards by Gail L. Jenner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I hate to rate this book so low, since the author says she cracked ribs and got a concussion in the course of researching it. Unfortunately, the book suffers from trying to cover way too much ground, splitting California’s 58 counties into 10 sections and jamming them into 300 pages. Because it has so much to cover, everything ends up glossed over at speed. I often got the feeling that fewer stories, told in greater detail, would have been more satisfying.
The author chose to focus on the unknowns of history, which means she left out Levi Strauss, Phineas Gage, Emperor Norton…although she does include Wyatt Earp, who wasn’t a California pioneer. She does a very commendable job of including pioneers of color, including William Leidesdorff (although his name is misspelled), Mary Ellen Pleasant, and the Spanish and Mexican land grant owners. She also talks at length about some of the Chinese pioneers who made history in the state.
Rather than arranging each section by cemetery, the chapters flow through various members of each family — often switching mid-chapter to talk about burial grounds in other counties without mentioning they are hundreds of miles away from the area for which the chapter is named. I found it really confusing, even with flipping back and forth to the map to see where each digression took me.
There aren’t many photos in the book (always a complaint for me), but those that are included seem to be placed randomly. For instance, the cross remembering soldiers killed in the Modoc War (in one of California’s northernmost counties) is placed at the start of the Central Coast chapter. The Modoc War itself is discussed 110 pages earlier, in the San Diego chapter. (San Diego is one of California’s southernmost counties, more than 800 miles away.) If the event is important enough to be included, why isn’t it referenced in the appropriate geographic area?
Most disappointing, sometimes cemeteries are given a street address in the text, but often they aren’t. There’s no list of cemeteries mentioned (other than combing through the index), no suggestion of additional resources, no contact information.
I really wanted this to be a terrific book, especially since it was a gift.
If you’re a completist like me and you’d like a copy of the book for your collection, you can get one from Amazon: https://amzn.to/3HGEbPW
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