Most Recent Books

EVERETT RUESS: HIS SHORT LIFE, MYSTERIOUS DEATH, AND ASTONISHING AFTERLIFE

University of California Press catalogue description:

"Everett Ruess was twenty years old when he vanished into the red rock canyon lands of southern Utah, spawning the myth of a romantic desert wanderer that survives to this day. It was 1934, and Ruess was in the fifth year of a quest to find beauty in the wilderness and record it in works of art whose value was recognized by such contemporary artists as Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. From his home in Los Angeles, he walked, hitchhiked, or rode a burro up the California coast, along the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and into the deserts of the Southwest. Seventy-five years after Ruess’s disappearance his bones were supposedly discovered in 2009. Misguided journalism led to bad science and erroneous DNA results. In the first probing biography of Everett Ruess, acclaimed environmental historian Philip Fradkin goes beyond the myth to reveal a troubled, idealistic adolescent who flirted with death and lost. Fradkin’s humane and clear-eyed account illuminates the realities of Ruess’s short life and mysterious death and finds in the artist’s astonishing afterlife a lonely hero who persevered."

The author's description:

The abbreviated life of Everett Ruess, Philip Fradkin believes, has much more to recommend it than whatever death may have befallen him in the desert or the mythology that propelled him to the pantheon of naturalists in this country. In an extract from the start of the book, Fradkin explains the core purposes of the book:

The writer-teacher-conservationist Wallace Stegner led me to Everett Ruess, whose trail I followed until it ended in Davis Gulch. Both westerners were shaped by landscapes and transcended their respective eras in their own distinctive ways. I read Stegner’s book Mormon Country in the late 1970s in preparation for writing a book about the Colorado River and the West. The Stegner book mentioned Ruess’s brief life, its fleeting promise, and his mysterious disappearance. Thirty years later I wrote a biography of Wallace Stegner. I described a man who lived a long, full life. I now write about a youth who lived a short, fragile life.

I have had a personal investment in the books I have written, but none to a greater extent than with this book. To varying degrees, we all searched for something during our early years. Like Everett, I was raised in the Unitarian Church with its emphasis on independent thinking, had progressive parents who believed in letting children find their own way, traveled West when a teenager to work among strangers, and embarked alone on a quest, hitchhiking for six months through Europe. One major difference was that I returned with no written record of my journeys; Everett disappeared, but left diaries, letters, and illustrations to document his wanderings.

This book is the story of all of us and our loneliness and confusion during the teenage years, only writ larger because Everett went to extremes. At that age our lives spread out like a topographical map before us, offering numerous diverging trails through the wilderness to choose from. How wonderful, how frightening, and how dangerous those years were. I hope readers, both young and old, can relate to Everett Ruess through either their own experiences, those of their children, a young relative, or a more distant youth. My parents and others experienced the wrenching grief following the loss of a child; that sadness and the process of healing are also part of this story. Everett’s era forms the backdrop. His wanderings provide a snapshot of growing up nearly one hundred years ago on the East Coast and in the Middle West, the Depression years in California and the Interior West, and the spaciousness of the national parks, monuments, and Indian lands in the Southwest.

In searching for a meaningful Everett Ruess, I sought the reality of who he was, or as close to that reality as I could get. I found the real Ruess to be far more interesting than the mythic one. I don’t view him as a western Thoreau or a younger Muir, as some do. Those two men described and thought about their respective regions. Everett described places beautifully. However, he thought primarily about himself, which is perfectly understandable given his age. I don’t know in what manner he would have matured, but I do know he was exasperating at times. This quality alone made him more human and interesting, at least for me, than the patron saint of western wilderness, as he has been portrayed.

Everett was a hero, not because of what he accomplished, but because he persevered. His story dates back at least as far as Parsifal and the Arthurian legend of the innocent youth who embarks on a quest for the Holy Grail. It resembles the more contemporary tales of Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caufield, and Christopher McCandless, who undertook odysseys of adolescence down the Mississippi River, on the streets of New York City, and into the wilds of Alaska. The difference between McCandless and Ruess is that the former is a lost soul, while the latter is attempting to find himself.

Reviews:

• "An acclaimed scholar of American Western history. . . . Fradkin paints a rich portrait of a young man who was both brilliant and troubled, and whose family still deals with his loss. The author's research shines through without bogging down the narrative, making it accessible and eminently readable. VERDICT Highly recommended not just to those interested in Ruess but to a wide variety of readers from academics to armchair historians." Library Journal, starred review.

• “Amid all the Ruess-related family worry and reader worship, it is left to Mr. Fradkin to sound a much needed, slightly critical note: "It strikes me," he writes, "that the mythical Everett is far less interesting than the real one, a youth who went to extremes, fatally harmed himself, and burdened his parents with uncertainty and grief for the remainder of their lives." Wall Street Journal

• “Fradkin packs plenty of revelations about Ruess and his times into this concise and enthralling biography. His reasoned discussion dissecting the scientific kerfuffles involving the 2009 DNA analysis of the bones found in Utah the previous year is enlightening and important. . . . Throughout the book, Fradkin displays his considerable skills as a storyteller. While simultaneously telling Ruess’ story, he weaves in the rich history of life in California and the West during the Depression. It all makes for a riveting ride through one of the Southwest’s enduring mysteries.” ZYZZYVA, San Francisco literary journal

THE LEFT COAST: CALIFORNIA ON THE EDGE

Also published by the University of California Press in the summer of 2011 was "The Left Coast: California on the Edge." It is a father-son effort. The photographs for the book were taken by Alex, who as a six-year-old accompanied Philip when he was researching his first book in the early 1970s. "California, the Golden Coast" was published by Viking in 1974. Alex is now in his 40s and is an accomplished photographer. This time he did most of the driving. They revisited and documented in words and images many of the places they stopped at in 1973, finding some the same and some vastly changed in this ever evolving state.

The text and photographs are clustered around the seven predominant land uses that impact the coast. They are--in the order from the Oregon to the Mexican borders and as they appear in the book--the wilderness, agricultural, residential, tourist, recreation, industrial, and military coasts. A concluding chapter titled "The Political Coast" describes how politics has shaped the shoreline. For each coast, an emblematic place is chosen: the Lost Coast in Humboldt County, the wilderness coast; western Marin County, the agricultural coast;, Daly City to Half Moon Bay, the residential coast; Monterey, the tourist coast; Santa Monica to Marina Del Rey, the recreational coast; Los Angles Harbor, the Industrial Coast; San Diego, the military coast; and the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Orange County for the political coast.

The following is the description of the book in the University of California catalogue:

Philip Fradkin, one of California’s most acclaimed environmental historians, felt drawn to the coast as soon as he arrived in California in 1960. His first book, California, The Golden Coast, captured the wonder of the shoreline’s natural beauty along with the controversies it engendered in 1974. In this book, the author and his photographer son Alex Fradkin revisit some of the same places they explored together in the early 1970s. From their written and visual approaches, this father-son team brings a unique generational perspective to the subject. Mixing history, geography, interviews, personal experiences, and photographs, they find a wealth of stories and memorable sights in the multiplicity of landscapes, defined by them as the Wild, Agricultural, Residential, Tourist, Recreational, Industrial, Military, and Political coasts. Alex Fradkin’s expressive photographs contribute an additional layer of meaning and enrich the subject with their distinctive eloquence while adding a visual dimension to his father’s words. In this way, the book becomes the story of a close relationship within a probing study of a varied and contested coastline.

Philip Fradkin is the author of thirteen books, including "A River No More," "The Seven States of California," "Magnitude 8," "Wildest Alaska," "The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906," and "Wallace Stegner and the American West," all available from UC Press. Alex Fradkin is a fine art photographer whose work has been widely exhibited and is held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Photography, and the Portland Art Museum. Alex’s work appears regularly in print and online publications around the world.

Reviews:

"The author yields a pen, memories of the past, and keen interviewing skills, while the artist presents breathtaking color photographs that capture the coast's magic . . . . Visitors to the Golden State could easily skip conventional guidebooks and keep "The Left Coast" handy for a thorough and engaging tour." ForeWord

"'The Left Coast' unites California historian Philip Fradkin (Wallace Stegner and the American West) and his son, photographer Alex Fradkin, in an homage to the beautiful scenes and varied uses for the land of coastal California. The text and photographs create two different, complementary views of the coast." Publishers Weekly

“What draws us to the coast, anyway? Why does staring at the ocean feel so good? How does it calm us and wash away stress? Why does it pull is back, again and again? These are questions Phillip and Alex Fradkin address in subtle ways with their words and photos. I could hear in their voices how the coast and ocean pulls them in.” Huffington Post

Backstories of Earlier Works

Nonfiction
The definitive life of the West's outstanding writer, teacher of writers, and conservationist.
The use and abuse of the West's lifeblood, water.
Radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site caused innocent people to die.
How landscape has determined the history and destiny of California
Giant waves, five hundred feet higher than the Empire State Building, sweep a remote Alaska Bay.

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