2 out of 4 stars
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Reader, I have to be honest with you. I don’t live in the U.S. I don’t live in Mexico either. As a result, I’m not familiar with the history of the individual states and Mexico’s hold over California before it joined the Union. To be honest, the events of this book look like a conquest because of that unfamiliarity.
Howard R. Holter’s The Last of the Californios covers the life and times of Pio Pico, a man I did not know about until reading this book. As mentioned, it starts during Mexico’s possession of the California region and ends with the American invasion and conquest. This last was, in fact, an event that would lead to Pio’s downfall and eventual death in poverty.
The Last of the Californios starts, as one does, with the journey to California and the Missions that were established by Mexico. From there, it plods along slowly, yet steadily, as we are introduced to a cast of characters central to Pio Pico’s life and success. From his brother Andres to his rivals like Juan Castro and the American firms from whom he borrowed, we learn about the kind of man he was. This would come to include, from very early on, a businessman and rising political force, the final governor of the state under Mexican rule, and a washed-up Don who tried to adapt to the new ways of the Americans.
The ultimate failure of this attempt captivated me. The book initially sets Pio Pico up as a charismatic and cunning figure who thrives, despite his illiteracy. Reading this, it’s clear that he continues to do so even after his time is passed and I found myself waiting for the ball to drop, and drop it did. Pico’s propensity for generosity to his friends and family, as well as his schemes to earn money, would eventually catch up to him. With this, the author did a really good job of showing the cavalcade of failures and how hit after hit reduced Pico to nothing in the end. There was no relief for him, making this a train wreck from which I couldn’t tear my eyes.
For as much as I found this interesting, however, the book is massively flawed. Holter’s timeline may be linear, but when he gets into the details, he goes back and forth with information. What results is that he often repeats facts we already knew about the families involved. Moreover, near the end of the book, he introduces things like Pico’s adult children without any previous context or mention of his philandering in the preceding pages. It was jarring and more than a little disconcerting after the build-up of a childless yet happy marriage.
In addition to this, the flow of the book was less than appealing. I also found the prose to be dry and needing a change in tone. If the author wants to attract an audience, the book needs to be reworked to hold the reader’s attention. As it was, I often found my attention wandering, and most of the names and dates difficult to remember because of this. There was no real association beyond their relation to Pico, and even that was a stretch. It was also littered with punctuation errors and inconsistent formatting, factors that served to undermine its credibility as a historical narrative a little.
I liked a lot about this book. I liked the narrow focus and I liked the way it didn’t even frame the antagonists as bad people. I liked that things were more complicated than they should have been and that it never stopped people from having hope for a better life. However, the errors in the book and the issues with flow and tone are too much to ignore. While I think I would recommend this to history buffs, I have to give it a 2 out of 4 stars for now.
The Last of the Californios
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