The best books about family in California

William F. Deverell Author Of Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed the Nation
By William F. Deverell

Who am I?

I am a historian of the American West and a professor at the University of Southern California. I also direct the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. I love the way very smart and ambitious family histories illuminate the fascinating (or sometimes mundane) lives of people in the past and, at the same time, use those stories to help us understand bigger-picture issues, eras, and all the turbulence of American life. That little-girl-in-the-well book I wrote is the first time I’ve attempted family history. It was so hard to try to get it right but, at the same time, exhilarating to think that maybe I did.


I wrote...

Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed the Nation

By William F. Deverell,

Book cover of Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed the Nation

What is my book about?

This is a book that, until I finished it, haunted and obsessed me. In the spring of 1949, a three-year-old girl fell down the narrow shaft of an abandoned well in a field near her family’s Southern California home. Her father was superintendent of the water company in charge of the field and its active and inactive wells. For forty-eight hours across an April weekend, the fate of Kathy Fiscus was unknown. Would-be rescuers tunneled deep into the earth to try to get to her. Spectators, as many as 10,000, arrived to witness the rescue attempt; they sang and prayed and kept vigil. Live television news crews basically invented remote TV broadcasting from the site, and journalism was never the same.

The books I picked & why

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Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

By D.J. Waldie,

Book cover of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

Why this book?

A lyrical and deeply intimate portrait of suburban Southern California in the Cold War. At once odd and beautiful, the book is a memoir, a history lesson, and an argument about how mere houses become homes all rolled into one tidy volume. Its publication nearly thirty years ago came as a surprise. Holy Land has continued to be a touchstone of the quieter and more contemplative aspects of life, family, and neighborhood in the often-overlooked ordinary places where love and loss happen just as often as they do anywhere else.

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

By D.J. Waldie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Holy Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since its publication in 1996, Holy Land has become an American classic. In "quick, translucent prose" (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times) that is at once lyrical and unsentimental, D. J. Waldie recounts growing up in Lakewood, California, a prototypical post-World War II suburb. Laid out in 316 sections as carefully measured as a grid of tract houses, Holy Land is by turns touching, eerie, funny, and encyclopedic in its handling of what was gained and lost when thousands of blue-collar families were thrown together in the suburbs of the 1950s. An intensely realized and wholly original memoir about the way…


On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family

By Lisa See,

Book cover of On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family

Why this book?

Richly woven history of immigration, family, and the California Dream as refracted through Chinese newcomers and their Chinese American descendants. The author has two very powerful tools at her disposal – penetrating historical sensibility and a great novelist’s ear for language. Across time and space, family stories, and passed-down memories endure. They all come together in this wonderful book in which California alternates between background and foreground through both hope and disappointment.

On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family

By Lisa See,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Gold Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Out of the stories heard in her childhood in Los Angeles's Chinatown and years of research, See has constructed this sweeping chronicle of her Chinese-American family, a work that takes in stories of racism and romance, entrepreneurial genius and domestic heartache, secret marriages and sibling rivalries, in a powerful history of two cultures meeting in a new world. 82 photos.


In the Country of Women

By Susan Straight,

Book cover of In the Country of Women

Why this book?

Novelist as genealogist, genealogist as novelist. A fiercely loyal portrait of a range of amazing women whose lives feel as if they were fictional, but they were and are not. A tender portrait of several generations of smart and loving mothers, wives, and daughters whose California is not the place of wealth and glamor but rather of making do, getting by, and loving your people and landscapes.

In the Country of Women

By Susan Straight,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked In the Country of Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of NPR's Best Books of the Year

“Straight’s memoir is a lyric social history of her multiracial clan in Riverside that explores the bonds of love and survival that bind them, with a particular emphasis on the women’s stories . . . The aftereffect of all these disparate stories juxtaposed in a single epic is remarkable. Its resonance lingers for days after reading.” —San Francisco Chronicle

In the Country of Women is a valuable social history and a personal narrative that reads like a love song to America and indomitable women. In inland Southern California, near the desert and…


The Browns of California

By Miriam Pawel,

Book cover of The Browns of California

Why this book?

A sprawling family story that, thanks to the sheer effort and skill of its author, tackles four generations of a political dynasty’s history and shapes it into a history of modern California at the same time. We see the Browns both shaping California and in turn being inexorably shaped by it, and we come away knowing them and knowing the Golden State all the better for this book’s depth and ambition.

The Browns of California

By Miriam Pawel,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Browns of California as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Miriam Pawel's fascinating book . . . illuminates the sea change in the nation's politics in the last half of the 20th century."--New York Times Book Review

California Book Award Gold Medal Winner * Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize * A Los Angeles Times Bestseller * San Francisco Chronicle's "Best Books of the Year" List * Publishers Weekly Top Ten History Books for Fall * Berkeleyside Best Books of the Year * Shortlisted for NCIBA Golden Poppy Award

A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist's panoramic history of California and its impact on the nation, from the Gold Rush to…


Who Killed Jane Stanford?

By Richard White,

Book cover of Who Killed Jane Stanford?

Why this book?

A page-turned, a Gilded Age whodunit, and a case study in how to dig and dig and dig into the historical record. This Stanford professor’s brilliant expose of the Stanford family and the university two of them founded is at its best when it reveals two things: how the public and private worlds of the rich and powerful (then and now) are utterly at odds with one another, and just how strange those private realms could (and can) be. Oh, and a murderer revealed, if but for a moment.

Who Killed Jane Stanford?

By Richard White,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Who Killed Jane Stanford? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1885 Jane and Leland Stanford co-founded a university to honour their recently deceased young son. After her husband's death in 1893, Jane Stanford, a devoted spiritualist who expected the university to inculcate her values, steered Stanford into eccentricity and public controversy for more than a decade. In 1905 she was murdered in Hawaii, a victim, according to the Honolulu coroner's jury, of strychnine poisoning.

With her vast fortune the university's lifeline, the Stanford president and his allies quickly sought to foreclose challenges to her bequests by constructing a story of death by natural causes. The cover-up gained traction in…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in California, Chinese Americans, and murder?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about California, Chinese Americans, and murder.

California Explore 253 books about California
Chinese Americans Explore 36 books about Chinese Americans
Murder Explore 497 books about murder

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Your House Will Pay, Because Our Fathers Lied, and The Devil's Harvest if you like this list.