Sierra Madre, a San Gabriel Valley suburb in the orbit of Los Angeles, has a particular history. By contrast, Southern California’s story is big and varied and often difficult to penetrate. Bringing the two together in an examination of how Sierra Madre reflected regional and national experiences—and how its inhabitants interpreted these through local circumstances—provides a handle that makes the whole more approachable. Unlike histories of regions, states, and nations that draw broad strokes at the expense of details about place, this history uses a more intimate scale to illuminate and to connect the dots to a broader cultural understanding.
Peeking out from behind local stories, big historical themes emerge: The Industrial Revolution, Westward expansion after the Civil War, the role of illness in forming regional culture, Americanization policies of the Progressive Era, post-war development. Sierra Madre provides an extraordinary, sharp lens through which to focus on Southern California’s intense allure, its history as a real estate deal, and its racial ambivalence. The context of a specific town—and the personal quest to better one’s life—lends a bottom up perspective that deepens and expands our understanding of the Southern California Story.
What the critics are saying…
"In Southern California Story: Seeking the Better Life in Sierra Madre, Michele Zack again delivers urban history at its best. As with Altadena, she pays her subject the tribute of extensive research and lively narrative. Whether it be people, politics, water, the environment, or social and racial issues, Zack places Sierra Madre’s story in a regional and national context—so that this history encompasses the range and richness of Southern California for those seeking a better life. Here is a regional history that offers us real insight into American life."
—Dr. Kevin Starr, author of the California Dream series
"Magnificently illustrated with photographs, maps, and works of art, this book will please all who love Southern California and its environment. Michele Zack, local historian, fills her history of Sierra Madre with fascinating information while also showing how it relates it to larger historical developments."
—Daniel Walker Howe, 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.
About the author…
Michele Zack has been a writer/journalist for 25+ years.
In 2011, she joined the The Huntington-USC Instititute on California and the West (ICW) as Senior Advisor, Local History and K-12 Outreach. ICW pairs a great research university (USC) with a great research library (The Huntington) for a number of projects in doctoral education, public outreach, and thematic and innovative investigations of Western History.
Her appointment followed years of work with ICW director Bill Deverell on three federal Teaching American History grants that provide professional development for k-12 history teachers.
"My role is to connect local history to broad historical themes, which I will continue to do. Now I have an academic home, and welcome the affiliation to such a prestigious institution," she says.
Her book Altadena: Between Wilderness and City was recognized in 2005 for excellence by the American Association of State and Local History, and in 2006 she received the Donald Pflueger Award from the Historical Society of Southern California.
Eaton’s Water, a film about local pioneers and water development, was adapted from Zack’s short story and is used in local classrooms. Currently, she partners with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and Pasadena Unified School District on a federal Teaching American History grant. Her role is to help educators integrate local, California, and United States history.
In the 1990s she lived in Thailand and California as AsiaWeek’s correspondent, and was a regular contributor to Far Eastern Economic Review. The author of a popular ethnography of a wandering hill tribe in Southeast Asia and co-author of Fielding's Guide to Thailand, Zack has written widely about Southeast Asia, and worked as speech writer for more than one Thai Prime Minister.
Currently, she's working on several new projects and writing for Altadenablog. In addition, she serves on the board of directors for Altadena Heritage.