Golden State

A Novel

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About The Book

A haunting literary drama, with a ripped-from-the headlines urgency reminiscent of Defending Jacob and Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone, Golden State asks hard questions about the limits of loyalty and the bounds of family ties.

Growing up in the 1960s in one of California’s most prominent political families, Natalie Askedahl worshipped her big brother, Bobby, a sensitive math prodigy who served as her protector and confidante. But after Bobby left home at sixteen on a Princeton scholarship, something changed between them. Now that Natalie is happily married, with a career and two young daughters, her only real regret is losing Bobby.

Then, a bomb explodes in the middle of her seemingly ideal life. Her oldest daughter is on the Stanford campus when one person is killed and another maimed. Other bombings follow across California. Frightened for her family, Natalie grows obsessed with the case until she makes an unthinkable discovery: the bomber’s manifesto reads alarmingly like the last letter she has from Bobby.

Unsure of whom to sacrifice and whom to protect, Natalie is confronted with a terrible choice that will send her down a rabbit hole of confusion, lies, and betrayals. As her life splits irrevocably into before and after, she begins to learn that some of the most dangerous things in the world are the stories we tell ourselves.

Excerpt

Golden State

chapter one

THE BAY AREA was in the midst of an autumn heat wave, hot, dry, and unnatural. The air electric against my skin, I had the sense that a single match could ignite us all.

On the front porch, last night’s Halloween pumpkin was collapsing in on itself—as much, I imagined, from the sound of jackhammers as from the heat. Yet another house on our street was being rebuilt into a mansion. It made me fear for the soul of our family neighborhood at the base of Berkeley Hills.

Downstairs, Eric was shouting at Julia, hysterical in a school-­morning drama of her own making. Behind my bedroom door, in front of the bureau that had been my grandmother’s, I fastened on a necklace of bright beads and tiny skulls.

It was the first of November, the Day of the Dead.

As if I had nowhere else to be, I reached for a small silver-framed photo from the clutter on my dresser top—the little boxes that held a piece or two of jewelry, the handmade knickknacks from the kids, the old photos I barely looked at anymore. I had other snapshots of the three of us, but this one was my favorite. My brother, sister, and I were lined up against the door of our old garage, squinting into the sun. Bobby was in the middle in a zippered jacket, his jeans rolled up at the ankle, an American boy of the fifties. On his right, Sara, in a starched dress, looked as if she was ready for anything the third grade could dish out. I was the littlest in the family, no more than three, perched in my mother’s high heels next to my big brother. I brushed the glass where Bobby’s hand rested on my shoulder. There was no special day of remembrance, I thought, no sad, sweet, shared mourning for those who were not dead, but simply gone.

On the stairs, Lilly called for mommy. I put the photo down. I had two kids to drive to school, twenty-two more to teach, and no more time for my private sorrows.

Julia rode shotgun, not speaking to her little sister or me, her head bent over a stack of smudged three-by-five cards. She was debating in a tournament at Stanford and had dressed in her most college-worthy outfit—a little gray skirt, a striped preppy blouse, a long cardigan with just the right amount of sag, and a pair of new flats that looked like they pinched her feet. I’d known better than to suggest a more comfortable pair.

Outside her school, Julia bolted from the car without saying good-bye. I watched her run from us, my small, slender fifteen-year-old with bouncing red-gold hair and an IQ so high it scared me. I could barely admit how relieved I was to see her go, to be alone with Lilly, who at seven still believed I could do no wrong. We love you both the same, we told the kids: a half lie—the love yes, the sameness impossible.

I drove south through the hills, away from Julia’s expensive school for intellectual superstars, down toward Mountaintop. Despite the lofty name, the little elementary school where I taught and Lilly was a second grader was wedged into a commercial street in the Berkeley flats. My husband and I had helped found the school. We’d raised money, painted walls, and planted trees, transforming a warehouse on San Pablo into a dream we’d had for our children. When Julia started first grade here, I was suddenly free. I had bigger aspirations than returning to my old teaching job. I was going to be a professor with an office and students who could sit still. But Lilly popped up unexpectedly, Mountaintop needed me, and here I was—for now.

My third-grade classroom was one of the larger rooms, with a wall of windows catching the morning light. As customary, we started the day on the floor, my students and I in a circle on the rug, the kids with their legs crossed, mine folded under my denim skirt. I read to them about El Día de Los Muertos, the holiday of the dead. This morning we were going to make our own small altars, I explained, paint them bright Aztec hues, decorate them with marigolds and clay skeletons we’d make ourselves. In the afternoon, we’d take a field trip to a cemetery.

As usual, Ben’s hand popped up.

“What if you don’t know any dead people?”

I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. My students were so young, their parents and grandparents still so young themselves, this seemed entirely possible. Then you can make an altar for a pet, I suggested. Our class goldfish, Kramer—after the character on the Thursday night show—had died the week before.

A hand rose slowly. I called on Annie.

“Did you know it’s so hot out because the globe is warming?”

A couple of the boys tittered. I shot them a look, but Annie had already dropped her head. I was surprised the kids knew anything about global warming.

“Annie has brought up something really important,” I said, improvising. “So important, I think our class should study climate change.”

I didn’t want to think why I was plunging into a subject that had no curriculum. All that work to make Annie feel better? Or was it in some way for Bobby?

Annie’s head came back up. I dismissed the kids to their seats. It was nine ten, and we were on a roll.

* * *

LILLY AND I stopped for an ice cream after school. Julia off debating at Stanford, it was just the two of us on gummy Shattuck Avenue in the unseasonable warmth, feeling carefree. At home, Lilly played in the backyard while I sliced carrots and potatoes to the news on NPR. When I finished, I turned down the volume to sit with my feet up, reading the newspaper I’d had no time for in the morning. I was deep into a story about the terrible war in Bosnia, civilians killed in the market, hardly listening to the radio at all. Yet I heard the newscaster say there’d been an explosion on the Stanford campus.

By the time I reached the radio dial, the report was over. I turned on the television in the family room and started flipping through channels. The story might have been breaking news, but I had to wait until five o’clock to hear it.

Less than an hour before, an explosion of unknown origin had ripped through an academic building in the heart of the campus. The building had been evacuated. There were casualties.

I told myself that Julia was safe, that all the kids were, that casualties didn’t mean them, but I was frantic as I phoned my husband. As soon as Eric picked up I blurted out the news. “Just a second,” he said calmly. I heard a click and understood I’d been on speakerphone. “You’re in a meeting.” I pictured his office, lawyers in grays and blues. “I’ll call you back when I know more.” My tone was even, but I wanted to punish him. I wasn’t even sure what he’d done wrong.

The phone rang almost immediately. It was one of the other debate mothers, who hadn’t heard from her daughter either. She was so agitated that she made me sound calm. “The students aren’t together,” she said. “They’re spread all over the campus, moving separately from building to building to debate all these kids from other schools.” Before we ended the call, I tried once more to reassure her, but I couldn’t even reassure myself.

Lilly emerged from the backyard hungry. I could barely think. I gave her a graham cracker, and told her she could watch TV in my bedroom. Julia would have been suspicious of my breaking of the no-­eating-upstairs rule, but Lilly took the cracker and ran off before I might change my mind. On the news, they still didn’t know what caused the explosion, but they had an unconfirmed report on the casualties: a professor and a graduate student in critical condition. Two other employees wounded less seriously.

I shuddered but I couldn’t help my relief. Not a high school debater among the injured. I was about to let Eric know when the phone rang again. Julia was on the line making little sense.

“I can’t understand you,” I said, the fear in my daughter’s voice making me desperate.

“I don’t know where I am,” she said. “It’s dark out. I can’t find anyone.”

I got her to calm down, tell me the story: She’d been away from the center of campus and hadn’t heard anything. When she’d moved to her next round, the building was locked. She’d waited for what seemed like forever, then gotten lost trying to find her way back. Finally she’d found a public phone, but now she didn’t even see any people around.

My panic was so palpable, she recoiled from it.

“I shouldn’t have called,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

It was clear she didn’t know about the explosion. My only thought was to keep her where she was.

“Give me the number on the telephone. I’ll get the campus police to pick you up.”

“I see somebody,” she said. “I’m going.”

She left me holding the phone.

Lilly came downstairs asking for more graham crackers. I gave her the box and sent her back upstairs. I’d forgotten dinner, the vegetables and chicken still in the refrigerator. I was shoving the pan into a cold oven when Eric walked in. He’d been listening to the updates on the radio on the way home.

“There must be someone we can call,” he said.

I threw up my hands. “Who?”

“The campus police for a start.”

“For a start?” I heard the shrillness in my voice, but I couldn’t contain myself. “What are you implying? That I didn’t think of that? She said she saw someone.”

Eric looked exhausted. “Don’t give me a hard time, Natalie.”

“A hard time?” I shouted. We traded accusations, making little sense. Suddenly there was Lilly in the shorts she’d worn to school, her still-baby-chubby knees bare.

“Why are you guys fighting?” She had her feet planted on the linoleum as if she were going to take no more childishness from us, but her eyes were wary.

What could I tell her? That for a moment the heavens had parted to show us a future in which we’d lost one of our babies? “Daddy and I are being stupid,” I said, a hand at my eyes. “No, I’m the one who’s being stupid.”

Eric pulled me next to him. Lilly squeezed between us.

“Dinner is going to be really late,” I said, clinging to them both.

* * *

WE TRIED not to make a big deal out of picking up Julia when the bus arrived at her school. It could have been any night, parents waiting for their kids in the dark parking lot, just another thing that had to be done. Except that no one spoke or even looked at anyone else, each family grabbing their child and spiriting him or her away.

Two hours past the usual time, Eric put Lilly to bed. I sat with Julia while she picked at her dinner and told me about her day. After all that had happened, what she wanted to talk about was how upset she was that she hadn’t done better in the final round.

At eleven, with Julia safely in bed, Eric and I collapsed on the couch. Eric clutched a glass of red wine and wrapped his free arm around me. I rested my head against his shoulder. We’d panicked earlier, but now we’d returned to ourselves, loving and loved, safe in our togetherness. I turned on the late news with the remote, and finally got the full story.

That day, a little after four o’clock, the head of the computer science department at Stanford University had opened a package addressed to him. The blast from the incendiary device inside had blown off his arm and half his face. The graduate student chatting with him had died on the floor from the massive wound to his chest.

There had been no malfunctioning generator at Stanford, no chemistry experiment gone awry. It had been a bomb that had caused that afternoon’s devastation on the campus where my daughter had been walking in her new shoes. Someone, some person had done that.

“I can’t listen anymore,” I said. I clicked off the set and turned to Eric. “Bed,” I said, longing for the sleep that would return us to the safety of our ordinary lives.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Golden State includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Stephanie Kegan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Golden State is a haunting novel by Stephanie Kegan about the choices we make, the loyalties we owe our families, and how fragile the foundations of an ordinary life can be. A fifth-generation Californian and the youngest of three children, Natalie enjoys an idyllic view of her past and a happy present as a wife, mother, and teacher. Then the unthinkable happens: Natalie is thrust into overnight notoriety when her beloved but erratic older brother is accused of committing a series of heinous crimes. Natalie is forced to make decisions that pit her loyalty to brother, sister, and mother against her need to protect her husband and children. Uncertain where her choices will lead, Natalie must endure the harsh judgment of the national media as she comes to terms with her past and a future she never imagined.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

l. In the opening of the novel, Natalie thinks that there is no special day of remembrance, “no sad, sweet, shared mourning for those who were not dead, but simply gone.” What do you think Natalie means by this? How has the absence of her brother impacted her life? When a close family member changes radically from the person you knew, does it change your feelings for him or her? If so, why and in what ways?
 
2. Natalie’s discovery places her in a crushing moral dilemma. If you suspected a family member of committing a crime, how would you react? Discuss the possibilities with your book group.
 
3. The crisis that befalls Natalie and her husband, Eric, produces a rift in their marriage that comes to a head when Eric refuses to go on 60 Minutes with Natalie. What do you think about Eric’s stance? And Natalie’s? Is her loyalty is misplaced? Would Eric think differently if it were his brother in jeopardy? Throughout the crisis, Natalie is torn between the needs of her family with Eric and what her mother, sister, and brother need from her. What do you think of the way she handles this dilemma? Whose position do you most identify with and why?
 
4. Discuss what you think about Natalie’s mother and her relationship with Natalie. In what ways do you think brother Bobby impacted their relationship? Do you think the mother bears any blame for the situation with Bobby? If so, why? Natalie and Bobby have very different views of their father. What is your view of the father and his role in the family’s difficulties?
 
5. Natalie says, “I came from a long line of dreamers, of storytellers, and the most dangerous stories we told were about ourselves. What does Natalie mean by this? What are the dangerous stories Natalie tells herself? At one point in the novel, she seeks forgiveness from a victim’s mother. How does this behavior reflect the story she tells herself? What were the dangerous stories other members of her family told? Could what happened in Natalie’s family happen to any family, or was hers in some way unique?
 
6. Natalie tells her daughter Julia that mental illness isn’t like the chicken pox. “It can be really hard to see in your own family.” Do you think there was an active denial of Bobby’s mental illness in Natalie’s family, and if so, why? What is the role that each family member played in the denial? If they had been able to confront Bobby’s mental illness, would the story have had a different outcome? Discuss whether you think the family bears any responsibility in the case of a mentally ill family member who commits a terrible crime. Why are families slow to recognize the signs of mental illness, opting to stay in denial even when a loved one exhibits behavior harmful to himself? Is there anything we can or should do as a society to help a family in this situation?
 
7. How do you think Natalie’s family history impacts her relationship with her daughters? Once Bobby is arrested, Natalie is in the difficult position of explaining this situation to her children. If you were facing her situation, how would you handle it? At what point in your family history would you begin? How would your explanation differ depending on the ages of the children? Did you agree with the way Natalie framed it to her daughters?
 
8. Natalie seems to be a person who guards her privacy. She tells us that she “tore the address labels from magazines I discarded because I was afraid of strangers knowing too much.” Yet she speaks about her family and their history to a reporter from Time. What do think about that decision? What do you think in general about her decisions to appear in the media and what that says about her? The media plays a substantial role in Golden State. How did the media influence or manipulate public opinion during the course of Bobby’s trial?
 
9. Natalie and Sarah have a very complex relationship. How does their relationship grow and change throughout the narrative? Do they seem more accepting of each other? Do you believe they will continue their relationship once the trial is over, and if so, why?
 
10. Discuss Natalie’s decision to take the stand. What influenced this decision, and how did she feel about it? How do you think you would feel if you had to make a similar choice?
 
11. Our society is fascinated by criminal trials, and notorious cases are frequently discussed on the news and in other media. Why do you believe this is the case? Have you ever followed a national trial closely? If yes, why? What do you believe this fascination says about our collective values?
 
12. Natalie learns that some mainstream thinkers had dared to say that while they abhorred Bobby’s tactics, they thought “his critique of contemporary society was dead-on.” What do you think of Bobby’s critique of contemporary society? Can you, for example, relate to Bobby’s desire to live in a world with less technology? Do you think that the devices of technology have caused us to lose any personal freedom?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Golden State delves into Natalie’s family’s history and explores her relationship with her native state. Explore your family’s history, why your forebears came to live where they did, as well as your relationship with where you live. Interview older family members, research your lineage, and uncover three or four facts you never knew about. Share your findings with your book club.
 
2. Challenge yourself to a technology detox. Try to go twenty-four hours without your cellphone, Internet, or television. How did this experience affect your daily routine? How did it make you feel? Did this experiment leave you with a better sense of technology’s impact your daily life?   
 

A Conversation with Stephanie Kegan 

What initially sparked the idea for you to write Golden State

It was more like several sparks that ignited into one. I’ve always been interested in sibling relationships, the impact of siblings on our lives, and stories about siblings who turn out dramatically different from each other. Over the years, I’ve also been struck by the agony of ordinary families thrust into the headlines by a son who’s committed an awful crime. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s wondered what it might be like to be in their place. On another track: I was educated in the California public schools when they were considered the best in the nation and college tuition was nearly free. It pains me today that California kids don’t have that kind of opportunity. These threads coalesced into the idea of a novel that would touch on the loss of the California dream through the shattered dreams of one California family—a family with a son who does something terrible.

The novel carries quite an emotional punch. How did the writing of it affect you?  

At times, I found myself getting really upset over some of the material. It’s painful to open yourself up to how fragile even the most seemingly secure life can be. The writing brought up my own fears of what I could lose in the blink of eye. I remember thinking: Why am I sitting down every day and doing this to myself?

Your background is in journalism. What drew you to this field and what inspired you to transition from journalism to novels? Do you see these forms as fundamentally different, or were there similarities that surprised you?  

When I started out, I wanted both to write and to make a living from writing. Not so easy. But journalism gave me a way to do that. It also taught me how to tell a story and how to listen to one. Aside from the obvious differences between journalism and fiction, I think good writing is good writing. As a reader, I want to be caught up in a story that challenges me in some way. I get that out of the best journalism as well as from fiction. I don’t see these forms as fundamentally different, nor do I think of myself as having transitioned from journalism to novels. I see myself as a writer who has the great good fortune at this point in her career to write novels.

What is your writing process like? Do you create a detailed outline, or do you let the characters and the plot determine the course of the narrative?  

This book was really determined for me by the characters. When I started, I knew only two things. One was that the main character would be a wife and mother who discovers that the murderer in the news is her estranged brother. The other was that the family had some connection to California history. My first task when I started writing was to figure out the brother’s crime. It took me a while, but I finally hit upon a mail bomber. That decision sent the story in a certain direction. The same was true about the choices with the other characters. What the father did for a living, for example, and Natalie—and so on. I also discovered the characters—and by extension the novel—in the writing of scenes. For example, I’d put two characters in a room and let them define themselves in interaction. Sometimes they went in a completely different direction than I’d planned.

Natalie and Sarah are very different, very complex individuals. Which sister do you relate the most with?  

I suppose that Natalie is more like me. She leads a relatively conventional life. She’s a wife and mother. I feel great empathy with her. She’s pulled in so many directions, trying to balance the needs of her own family while she deals with the crisis in her original family. A part of her just wants to get out from under, but she understands that might never happen. As Bobby’s sister, she also carries a heightened awareness that children can be lost. That said, there’s a lot of me in Sara. I was the oldest child in my family and somewhat oblivious to the lives of my younger siblings. Like Sara, I just wanted to get out of the house and go places.

Bobby is responsible for terrible crimes, yet he is in some ways sympathetic, at least to Natalie. How did you handle the challenge of writing that character?  

Certainly Bobby was the most difficult character in the novel for me to write. I was lucky in that I had some brilliant—and very kind—people in my extended family. So I had that experience to draw on in describing the impact of Bobby’s intelligence on Natalie. From the start, I knew that Bobby was going to develop a grave mental illness—he’s a paranoid schizophrenic. My challenge was to make his behavior consistent with that illness, but not so obvious that everyone could see it. Although his tactics are odious, I had to make his philosophy seem reasonable. The hardest scenes for me to write were the two of Bobby and Natalie meeting in the jail room. Bobby had to seem crazy and sane, unrepentant about his crimes and yet not fully aware of their implications. He had to be someone new to Natalie and yet familiar.

What kind of research did you do for the novel?  

Obviously, I researched the Unabomber case and the issues surrounding his trial—chiefly the conflicts imposed on our justice system when the defendant is both a terrorist and insane. But I also researched other cases: Timothy McVeigh, who was the Oklahoma City Bomber; Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to kill US citizens in the 9/11 attacks; the Fort Hood shooter and Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hasan; and John Phillip Walker Lindh, known as the American Taliban. Shot in the Heart, Mikal Gilmore’s wrenching portrait of his family and his relationship with his brother Gary Gilmore, was a valuable resource. Of course, I researched how the federal court worked and issues surrounding the death penalty, including the drugs used in lethal injection. But Golden State is primarily a family story, so I did a lot reading on mental illness and how families can deny the illness in their midst. One book I found particularly helpful was The Normal One, by Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., which addresses the psychological impact of being the “normal” sibling of a damaged brother or sister. Since Natalie’s family story was intertwined with the history of the California, I also had to get my state history right.

As evidenced from the title, Golden State is intrinsically linked to its setting. What influenced your decision to tie Natalie’s family history so closely to California’s history?  

I was thinking of California both in the sense of an actual place and as a metaphor—as a container, if you will, for the American dream. In my research of these types of killers, I saw the same characteristics repeat themselves: rage, alienation, black-and-white thinking, and desire for identity. My interest was how this person might develop in an ordinary family. I tied Bobby’s family so closely to the California dream because I wanted it to be clear that Bobby’s violence in some ways was directed at them. Although Bobby is a domestic terrorist with a relatively coherent philosophy, his deepest rage is toward himself and his family. His violence gives him a way to escape facing his mental illness and the loss of the life he might have led. It gives him an identity and supplies him with what he needs to make sense of everything: outside enemies. Golden State is at base about family and the ways in which families mirror the culture they live in.

In what ways did your family’s experience in California and your own relationship with the state influence the novel?  

When my father was a teenager during the Depression, he and some buddies hopped a freight train from North Dakota one summer and rode the rails to Southern California. They slept in orchards, ate fruit from the trees, and swam in the ocean. As a kid, I loved listening to that story and hearing the wonder in his voice at what he described as seeing paradise for the first time. He had to return to his life in North Dakota, but his direction was set. We moved to California from the Midwest when I was four years old. My parents used the GI Bill to buy a midcentury-modern ranch-style house in a brand new subdivision in Southern California. My father told me I could go to any college I wanted so long as it was a California public university. I chose Berkeley, where kids really did arrive on Greyhound buses with practically no money in their pockets to attend one of the best universities in the country. I grew up under that dream, benefited from it, and I’ve seen it move further and further out of reach for ordinary families like mine. So that experience certainly influenced the novel.

About The Author

Photograph by Lesley Bohm

Stephanie Kegan is a freelance writer who has been published in Self, Los Angeles Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. A native of Southern California, she earned her BA in history from UC Berkeley and attended Journalism School at the University of Southern California. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. Golden State is her first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 2015)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476709314

Raves and Reviews

“Kegan’s masterful, stirring portrait of familial loveraises moral questions that’ll have you twisting in your seat, asking yourself,'What would I do?'"

– Will Allison, New York Times bestselling author of Long Drive Home

“In prose more readable and brisk and light-filled than any I’ve read in a long time, Stephanie Kegan has created an intimate portrait of a woman whose lifelong love of her big brother can’t be compromised even by his monstrous crimes. Golden State is a moral story of the supremacy of love over law, rendered moving by the tenderness of the ordinary domestic day-to-day life wherein these atrocities come to be revealed.”

– Louis B. Jones, author of Particles and Luck

“Stephanie Kegan’s Golden State signals the arrival of an exciting new voice in contemporary American fiction. Here is a California novel like no other, where an influential family’s turbulent legacy, and one woman’s decision, ultimately shapes the destiny of an entire state. In a landscape that is at once as serene and Edenic as it is volatile and combustible, Kegan’s writing is deft, finely calibrated, and emotionally resonant. With a cast of characters that feel so familiar they could be our own kin, nothing is spared here as we witness the lengths Natalie Askedahl—wife, mother, sister—will go to in order to protect the ones she loves most."

– Alex Espinoza, author of Still Water Saints and The Five Acts of Diego León

“Golden State reads like a minefield; one misstep and the story will explode. But Kegan walks the line between sanity and chaos, weaving a tale with a flawless conclusion. The results are devastatingly beautiful.”

– Paste Magazine

“What would you do if you suspected your beloved brother was the man responsible for a string of college campus bombings? In this intense, provocative novel, a Berkeley woman’s response to that dilemma nearly destroys her life. Her wrenching experience will resonate with anyone who’s ever watched a loved one self-destruct.”

– People

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