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Rising in the West
by dan morgan
knopf, 532 pages, $25

Just when you thought it was safe to dismiss the American experience as a compendium of invasions, intrusions, and indiscriminate cruelties, along comes Dan Morgan to spoil the pretty, ugly picture. Correspondent for the Washington Post and a National Book Award nominee for Merchants of Grain , Morgan has delivered a compelling documentary account of an American family’s journey from the Dust Bowl to the dawn of a new century. In so doing, he speaks eloquently, not of one Okie family, but of America itself. 

Rising in the West invites comparison with its fictional predecessor, The Grapes of Wrath , but its ambitions are more modest, and yet in some ways greater, than Steinbeck’s. Morgan does not set out to create a myth. Nor does he impose his own moral vision on the very real lives of people with a vision and morality of their own. To his credit, he lets them and their lives speak for themselves. 

His chief protagonist, Oca Tatham, family patriarch and spiritual touchstone, is a fortunate choice of spokesman. When we first meet Oca, he is a young man with an indefinable itch”a need to escape the barren landscape of Depression-era Oklahoma and find something new, something better. Young Oca scrapes together the money for a battered old truck, gathers his disparate friends and family, and drives them across the frontier of Route 66 to California. 

When Steinbeck’s Okies reach the “golden land,” theirs is an ironic victory. Not so Oca Tatham’s. In every sense, he finds himself in California. And, simultaneously, he discovers a deep, abiding faith in God. As he rises from field laborer to horse trader, junk dealer, real estate owner, nursing home developer, multimillionaire, Oca’s Pentecostal beliefs become increasingly important in his life and the life of his family. Oca Tatham appears to be one rich man who has a passing shot at getting through the eye of that needle. 

It is no small achievement on Morgan’s part that his tale of the Tathams also succeeds as a parallel history of Pentecostalism in America. From the origins of Pentecostalism in tiny shacks by the side of the road, where the celebrants regularly speak in tongues and the Bible is the literal roadmap of faith, to the glass cathedrals of Orange County, with their drive-in customers and hi-tech TV studios, Morgan casts an unbiased eye at a crucial, if relatively unexamined, phenomenon: the role of fundamentalism in the creation of California and, thereby, contemporary America. 

In the 1930s, the San Joaquin Valley, where the Tathams settled, struggled, and eventually prospered, was more than just a new frontier. Morgan describes a developing nation”a polyglot of languages, cultures, and religions: Armenians, Italians, Mexicans, Filipinos; Catholics, Jews, Protestants of every denomination (and denominations within denominations), Russian Orthodox, etc. In short, the fabulously fertile land between Sacramento and Bakersfield represented the mosaic, the melting pot, the mess we have come to know as America. 

Among all the “marginal” peoples, the Okies were the newest arrivals”the most marginal. Distrusted and disliked, they experienced the kind of prejudice that immigrants always encounter. “Okies need not apply” was standard employment practice. Even if they did find menial jobs, Okies had to work twice as hard to prove themselves. Their Oklahoma twang betrayed them, their country music stamped them, and their Pentecostal faith brought them ostracism. 

In Oca’s case, however, adversity only intensifies his resolve and his religion. Possessed of an innate cleverness and an endless capacity for work, Oca is able to move his family out of the fields and into the business boom of post-World War II. The embodiment of a Horatio Alger hero, he increases his wealth and his influence”in both state and church”from the days of FDR through the Reagan years. He doesn’t hoard his money or his mission; he shares it instead with his sons and daughters, and their children. 

The story of the Tathams (and to a lesser extent that of the Tacketts, a sort of sub-plot) is not a string of uninterrupted successes and songs of praise to the Almighty. Of the sixteen souls who started out from Oklahoma in that rickety old truck, only Oca Tatham and his immediate family found permanence and prosperity in California. The others returned to their small towns, or drifted around the fringes of the new California. 

Nor has Oca himself been immune to the upheavals and heartbreaks of modern times: His children and grandchildren have suffered divorce, heretofore anathema in his tradition. He has seen members of his family seduced by the comfort and charm of California’s emerging “lifestyle.” He has witnessed the rise and fall of the electronic church, in which he and his family invested heavily. He endured the broken promises of politicians of both parties, on every level, from county supervisor to President. 

 Despite these wounds, or perhaps because of them, in Morgan’s telling Oca and his people become something more than curiositiesJoads who “made good.” Ultimately, they become a quintessential American family, journeying beyond the boundaries that limited Ma Joad and her dreamy son, Tom. The Tathams take us along the real “interstate,” the one that runs past the New Deal and the Good War, past Selma and Woodstock, past Pat Robertson and Pete Rozelle. Some of those bumps might have been more fully explored. Writing about a family whose cooperation was essential to the completion of his book, Morgan may have been overly circumspect about their involvement in such areas as the nursing home scandals, the S&L debacle, and corruption within the TV evangelical churches. Clearly, however, his purpose was not to expose, but to illuminate. He has done that, and more. By chronicling the Tathams, Dan Morgan has given us an insightful history of our own life and times. Lucky Gold , a screenwriter, is a new contributor to First Things .