Malcolm Margolin, editor,
The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories & Songs
(Heyday, 1981)

Sometimes the best way to tell a story is by allowing those persons involved to tell it in their own words. That is precisely what Malcolm Margolin did in The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories & Songs.

Margolin began with the clear goal of producing a manuscript that would be a comprehensive study of Native California literature. He quickly learned that he had chosen an impossible task.

First, the variety of languages, more than 120, was equally matched by variety in lifestyle, culture, beliefs, ceremonies, traditions and even physical appearance. Second, he readily admits that some of the things he collected were "simply bewildering."

He points out that people from every direction migrated into California and there are languages based on those from the eastern United States, Canada, British Columbia, the Yucatan and even one that cannot be linked to any known surviving language family in the world. (The author provides detailed specifics.) Such is the variety of California.

This book includes 82 anecdotes, stories, poems and songs divided into 10 sections: "Growing Up," "The Conflict of Love," "An Ordered World," "Old Age & Death," "The Aliveness of Things," "Getting Power," "Dream Time," "Mythic Time," "Coyote Tales" and "After the Coming of Whites." The section of photographs at the end is fascinating.

The author includes a paragraph or more at the beginning of each piece, and usually follows the piece with an explanation of certain points or how that piece fit into the culture of the people from which it was taken. You might learn about the rites of passage at the end of one and the customs of death with another. By the time you reach the end of the 209 pages, you will have a vast and varied collection of information about the lifestyles of the California natives.

I love Margolin's writing style. He is very easy to understand, honest in relaying his research and discoveries, and a fine narrative author. He has a knack for dispensing tons of information in small spaces without losing any reading appeal. There is an excitement to his writing can that only come from love of the subject.

It should be noted that when a person is compiling many "snippets" of information -- stories, songs and so forth -- there is an art to choosing the right pieces and producing a work with continuity. Margolin is an expert at doing just that. He consistently produces quality compositions.

Margolin is the author of The Ohlone Way, The East Bay Out and The Earth Manual. He is the director of Heyday Publishing and lives in Berkeley, Calif.

The Way We Lived will provide countless hours of entertainment. This is a marvelous look at the indigenous lives within the boundaries of our largest state prior to the invasion of non-natives. You cannot go wrong with this purchase. Many of the stories are ideal for reading aloud to children. All are entertaining for adults. This book definitely gives you value for your money.

book review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

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