A Story of California

by Frank Norris
Publisher: Dover Publications
Trade Paperback, 432 pages
Price: $8.95

There are many contenders for the title "great American epic," but any list would be incomplete without Frank Norris' largely forgotten The Octopus: A Story of California. In fact, the poet Presley (the novel's protagonist) is looking for a topic for an epic of his own....and, given the nature of writing, it's easy to peg Norris as Presley's real-life corollary.

The Octopus spreads wide like a California wheat field. The first in a projected trilogy Norris called "the Epic of the Wheat," it deals with a fictional version of an actual war between California wheat farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad defended by federal law enforcement. The farmers leased land from the railroad intending to eventually buy it outright for $2.50-$5 per acre.

When the railroad made the land available, however, it was at a much higher price. The company's desire to use the land for advancing the rail line and exploiting the ranchers and farmers. Armed conflict ensued, with all the elements of actual war, including battles, murder and intrigue. Norris actually traveled to California from New York to work on a wheat farm and gather research for his novel.

In an age when socialism was popular, Norris never embraced it as a political system. Aspects of socialist theory are certainly present in his work, but it is genuine concern for people rather than their further exploitation at the hands of yet another corrupt social structure that seems to have preoccupied him. In The Octopus it isn't hatred of the railroad that motivates the wheat farmers so much as a desire for justice and to raise their crops in peace.

There are elements of a good Western here, including gunfights and eccentric characters. There's also romance and detailed descriptions of turn-of-the-century farming and fascinating psychological insights. So while some writers content themselves with social commentary or intellectual speculation, Frank Norris managed to create a genuine work of art that stands on its own merits apart from any serious political statements.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Exodus Rating:
FLAWS: Violence, mild language
Summary: California wheat farmers face off against railroad barons in this scathing epic about American greed and expansionism.

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