California’s Founding Father
Steven W. Hackel
Hill and Wang, $27, 327 pp.
Junípero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California
Scribner, $30, 480 pp.
To mark the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Padre Junípero Serra (1713–84), Stephen W. Hackel and Gregory Orfalea have each written critical biographies of the pioneering California missionary. Hackel concludes his scholarly study, published in 2013, by stating that his book will not be the final word on the controversial explorer: “Serra studies will continue to evolve as successive generations examine his life anew.” Almost as if on cue, Orfalea responds in his book, published this year, that his and Hackel’s Serras, “though similar at times, are essentially different, and our approach is vastly different.” Here, then, is a tale of two Serras.
Both biographers closely follow the dramatic adventures of the peripatetic Spanish friar (proclaimed blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1988)—and Serra had many such adventures on both land and sea. The first half of his life was spent entirely on the island of Mallorca, off Spain’s southeastern coast. Born to a poor farming family, Serra entered the Franciscans at sixteen, was ordained, and became a prominent professor of theology. But at his career’s midpoint Serra embarked on a totally new venture, as a missionary to...