Rarick, Ethan 1964–

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Rarick, Ethan 1964–


Born March 1, 1964, in Eugene, OR. Education: Johns Hopkins University, B.A.


Office—Center on Politics, University of California, Berkeley, 102 Moses Hall, MC 2370, Berkeley, CA 94720. E-mail—[email protected]


Journalist with United Press International, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle; University of California, Berkley, acting director of the Center on Politics and acting director of publications for the Institute of Governmental Studies.


California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2005.

California Votes: The 2006 Governor's Race, Berkeley Public Policy Press (Berkeley, CA), 2007.

Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2008.


Ethan Rarick is a journalist and author whose books include California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown, a study of the popular liberal who was governor of California from 1959 to 1967, and who was the father of later governor Jerry Brown, who went on to become mayor of Oakland. The senior Brown built freeways, initiated vast public works projects, and expanded California's enviable educational system. The Democrat defeated Republican William F. Knowland to become governor, and American Prospect reviewer Harold Meyerson noted that Rarick points out that during his inauguration speech, Brown used the words liberal or liberalism seven times in the first eight paragraphs. Meyerson wrote: "Brown committed himself to a vast range of progressive policies: banning racial discrimination in employment, limiting consumer-credit charges, expanding publicly funded medical care for the poor, establishing a state minimum wage, improving public schools, doing something about that smog that had settled over much of the state, setting up a state office of research and development, and even enabling workers to have portable pensions." Brown later defeated challenger Richard Nixon after Nixon lost the presidential race to John F. Kennedy, but with Ronald Reagan's victory in 1966, the era over which Brown presided was replaced by the conservatism that was enveloping the country. California had been changing, and Brown made decisions that were unpopular in some quarters, including his order for arrests of students promoting the Free Speech Movement when they occupied the campus administration building at the University of California, Berkeley, and a stay of execution for Caryl Chessman, a rapist who was condemned to death. Brown had previously decided to let Chessman die, since the Supreme Court had the final say and was not in favor of commuting the sentence. It was Jerry who convinced his father to call San Quentin, but Chessman was executed soon after.

Brown was governor during the summer of 1965, when several dozen deaths occurred during the Watts riots in South Los Angeles. Brown called in the National Guard to augment the notoriously racist Los Angeles Police Department, a move applauded by residents of the stricken area, but Reagan was able to use this and other events against Brown by rallying white voters who opposed welfare and housing integration.

In reviewing California Rising in the Historian, Mark Wild wrote: "The narrative comes most alive when dealing with the machinations of Brown's campaigns and administrative dealings as governor, areas where Rarick has clearly done his homework. The result is a sweeping, although necessarily somewhat scattershot, account of the Brown years."

Meyerson wrote: "The rise and fall of Pat Brown—and then, over the past fifteen years, his rise again in the assessment not just of historians but of California's political elites of all tendencies—is an important and instructive tale, not just of Brown and California but of American liberalism more generally." Brown died in 1996 at the age of ninety.

Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West is Rarick's account of the eighty-one men, women, and children who began the winter of 1846-47 in the Sierra Nevadas when they were trapped by a storm as they traveled from Missouri to California. On the misadvice of people they met along the way, they took a straighter but more treacherous route that delayed them long enough that they were caught by winter weather unlike any they had ever experienced. Other groups who had gone ahead knew the number of cattle the Donner party had and assumed that they would survive. However, the Donner Party had little food, due to the fact that their cattle had been stolen by native tribes. No rescue party was sent out, and the Party had only basic shelter. Their plight is notable because many in the party resorted to cannibalism of those who had died, a fact that has brought attention to their story over the last century and a half since it occurred.

George R. Stewart wrote a 1936 novel titled Ordeal by Hunger, but Rarick was able to fully develop the history because of scientific evidence that has been uncovered beginning in the 1980s. Archaeologists dug at what is now called Donner Lake, near Truckee, where most of the party camped. More recently, artifacts were extracted from a meadow showing that the Donner family lived some seven miles from the first site. Rarick incorporates these findings into his book, which is also written in novel form, and writes of the factors that contributed to survival. For example, he notes that women survived the longest. The people who were eaten, with the exception of two dying Native Americans who were shot, had already died. In an interview in the U.S. News & World Report, Rarick said that "they're really not exactly heroes or villains. They're regular people, who do heroic things, but who basically were unprepared for what befell them and who did the best they could to survive. To me, that makes it all the more inspiring of a story."

Rarick tells his story through the Reed family. James is a leader who is banished after killing a teamster in a fight. He leaves to lead a rescue party back to the group, and his wife and four children are saved. His mother-in-law had died on the trail. Rarick also writes of an experiment conducted by the University of Minnesota during World War II that examined the effects of starvation on mood, which helps the reader imagine what the members of the Donner party must have undergone. He drew on archived source materials and traveled the route followed by the Donner party in researching the book.

Dana Goodyear reviewed Desperate Passage in the New York Times Book Review. She wrote: "Rarick concludes that the members of the Donner party were neither heroes for surviving nor scoundrels for the manner in which they did so. He writes: ‘They were Everyman. Often, adventure stories feature larger-than-life figures, grand Victorian explorers or indomitable generals or pith-helmeted naturalists resolutely seeking some wondrous discovery…. Such quests have much to teach us, but so too does the drama of the mundane gone madly wrong.’ To my mind, the lesson of the Donner party is not so much about what they did or did not consume as it is about our appetite for such dramas."



American Prospect, August, 2005, Harold Meyerson, review of California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown, p. 51.

Atlantic Monthly, June, 2005, Benjamin Schwarz, review of California Rising, p. 102.

Biography, winter, 2007, Robert W. Cherny, review of California Rising, p. 124.

Campaigns & Elections, July, 2005, David Mark, review of California Rising, p. 38.

Choice, July 1, 2005, T.H. Ferrell, review of California Rising, p. 2066.

Historian, summer, 2006, Mark Wild, review of California Rising, p. 354.

Journal of American History, March, 2006, Roger W. Lotchin, review of California Rising, p. 1523.

Library Journal, December 1, 2004, Karl Helicher, review of California Rising, p. 137.

Los Angeles Daily Journal, January 25, 2005, Richard M. Mosk, review of California Rising, p. 6.

New York Times Book Review, February 3, 2008, Dana Goodyear, review of Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West, p. 12.

Pacific Historical Review, August, 2006, Robert W. Cherny, review of California Rising, p. 521.

Western Historical Quarterly, autumn, 2006, Sarah Schrank, review of California Rising, p. 385.


Monthly Online,http://www.themonthly.com/ (April 20, 2008), "Son of Brown," author interview.

U.S. News & World Report Online,http://www.usnews.com/ (February 19, 2008), author interview.