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The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire Hardcover – October, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

This meticulous narrative of the rise of the cotton magnate James G. Boswell begins in the nineteen-twenties, when his family was driven from Georgia by boll-weevil infestations and brought its plantation ways to California's San Joaquin Valley. Not to be defeated by nature again, the Boswells leveed and dammed Tulare Lake, the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi, to the point of extinction. In its six-hundred-square-mile basin they grew cotton, while in Los Angeles office towers they built one of the country's largest agricultural operations, swallowing small farms and multimillion-dollar subsidies with equal vigor. Arax and Wartzman strive for evenhandedness but acknowledge the costs of Big Ag—such as evaporation ponds with selenium levels so high that ducks are born with corkscrewed beaks and no eyes, and the recurrent "hundred-year floods," stubborn attempts by the old lake to reassert itself.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Booklist

You may never have heard of him, but J. G. Boswell controls the biggest farming empire in America. In the early part of the twentieth century, his family moved from Georgia to California, where they drained one of the country's biggest lakes, Tulare Lake, and planted cotton. Soon their cotton empire became the richest and most technologically sophisticated on the planet. This book is many stories, all rolled into one epic. It's the story of the Boswells from the 1800s to the present day; of cotton farming in America; of California itself; and of the evolution of race relations as the country dragged itself out of the era of slavery and, not at all smoothly, into the modern era. Written in a lively style that matches the bigger-than-life qualities of its subject, the book is far more exciting than you might think the story of a cotton farmer would be. With proper marketing, it could smash through genre barriers and become the Seabiscuit of agricultural biography! David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1 edition (October 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586480286
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586480288
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

What a pleasant surprise in a history book ... that reads like a page-turning novel.
Arax and Wartzman's "The King of California: JG Boswell and the Making of a Secret Empire" is a top notch history book.
Paul Richards
It was that these very talented and rich farmers took the subsidized land and water instead of paying the market rate.
David Zetland

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Ali John Comegys on October 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I couldn't put this book down! Arax did it again. This is a grand sweeping history of the J G Boswell Company and the Tulare Lake bottom they farm. A few times the book described events and people I personally knew and they got it exactly right. This is a good balanced history and a story that really needed telling. For most people the San Joaquin Valley is almost a complete blank, for many who live here it is precisely where the plantation meets the rancho. Reading this epic book about JG Boswell will go a long way towards explaining why and whatever happened to the biggest lake west of the Mississippi.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Chris Brewer on January 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman have compiled and written a wonderfully comprehensive book on the struggle between man and nature as well as on man and the political machine. The story of J.G. Boswell and the taking of Tulare Lake is nothing short of an incredible tale of how a family of humble beginnings could become the largest farming operation in the United States. Arax and Wartzman are to be congratulated for their survival through years of research and writing of a book that will remain a classic of California history for years to come. Seen by many who are connected with the Boswell empire as a threat, the book lays out the details of how the company systematically gained thousands of acre feet of water rights in a drought-threatened San Joaquin Valley. It is a well rounded book telling a fantastic true story. The Boswell company should be proud of their success as should Mark and Rick in theirs. Booksellers in the San Joaquin Valley can't keep it in stock and have sold thousands of copies to local residents. It is a story that people want to know about.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Brent Edwards on November 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book centers around three generations of Boswells as they migrated from Green County Georgia to Kings County California and became the largest producers of cotton in the world, without becoming a household name.

The book also tells of the natural, social, and political histories of the San Joaquin Valley from the days of indigenous peoples and the first Spanish invaders to the present day.

The epic is a fascinating study of twentieth century American history, society, economics, business, finance, management, politics, public policy, labor relations, mechanization, technology, modernization, and nature.

The more personal stories of family, romance, crime, and punishment read more like a good novel.

Some have found the authors liberally biased, but as a conservative, I found the authors well balanced in their presentations of all sides of the stories.

As others have said, the scope is huge and the research extensive. As someone who was born and raised in Kings County California, I found this heretofor unknown local history to be quite fascinating. Nevertheless, I believe this book will have broad appeal to many readers.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By doomsdayer520 HALL OF FAME on April 26, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This far-reaching book is quite an accomplishment in biography and investigative journalism. Arax and Wartzman cover the history of the immense Boswell farming company of California, and the two guys named J.G. (the founding uncle and the current chairman, his nephew) who built the company into the largest cotton operation on Earth. Through cutthroat competitive instincts and political wheeling-and-dealing, the Boswells amassed tens of thousands of acres in California's Central Valley, and were instrumental in eliminating what was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, as the former Tulare Lake was transformed into a festering network of levees, canals, and cesspools dedicated to the mass production of cotton. Thus, the Boswells built the area's environment, culture, and economics for their own profitability.

The book also serves as a great exploration of the business of factory farming, detailing the racism and poverty experienced by Black and Mexican workers, as well as the shifty agricultural and hydrological politics of Big Ag in California - as the Boswells and their competitors/allies buy politicians, stack laws and regulations in their favor, and claim flood control as a reason to alter the natural course of rivers and to completely drain the vast Tulare Lake. Best of all, we see how big business really works out West, with the hypocrisy of so-called rugged outdoorsmen (actually pampered CEO's) who incessantly rail against government interference while also taking in millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies that are meant to help the little guy. This book is immensely informative but does often get tied up in unnecessary details, such as descriptions of petty political shenanigans in the construction of a nearby dam.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By FloridA1A on January 21, 2008
Format: Paperback
As a transplant to California, I picked this book up out of historical curiosity and, from that perspective, it does not disappoint. The story of the Boswell Company's growth and not-infrequent run-ins with regulators and legislators is an interesting, eminently readable history of California itself.

Water rights and agriculture policy are, rather dry subjects in and of themselves, but told as part of the story of this interesting family and company, they come to life.

The only drawback of the book is that the authors can barely conceal their utter contempt for their subject. In numerous places, they abandon all journalistic detachment and express their opinion as fact, usually in a blistering condemnation of their target.

Consider this screed against former Los Angeles Times Publisher Harrison Gray Otis on page 83: "Otis was a fourth-rate publisher and first-rate bully who used the columns of his disgraceful newspaper to spill bile and venom at organized labor and an infinite list of enemies, real and imagined."-- Fact or Opinion?

The authors' inherent bias notwithstanding, they did a good job of research and crafted an engaging narrative.
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