Armchair America: Texas Through Books

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Vintage postcard of Texas

My husband and I have just returned home from a two-week vacation in Texas.  This was my second visit to Texas — the first was six years ago, when we travelled to Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, North Padre Island, and Galveston.  This time my husband and I flew into San Antonio, and from there we drove west to Big Bend National Park, then south along the Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico.  We spent our final few days on the gulf coast before flying home.

While planning our itinerary, I took time to read some books about Texas and by Texas authors to acquaint myself with Texan culture, history, geography, and people.  I sent queries to the San Antonio Public Library and the Austin Public Library for their on-the-ground book recommendations.  Here are their suggestions:

Cristine at the San Antonio Public Library focused on titles I might not have previously encountered:

Fiction:

  • The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
  • The Big Red Tequila by Rick Riordan (first in a mystery series set in San Antonio)
  • A Twist at the End by Steven Saylor (about serial murders i Austin)

Nonfiction:

  • Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards by Jan Reid

Juvenile and Young Adult:

  • The Legend of the Bluebonnet by Tomie DePaola
  • A Paradise Called Texas by Janice Jordan Shefelman
  • Under the Mesquite by Guadalup Garcia McCall
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Vintage Texas postcard

Blain at the Austin Public Library suggested these Texas titles:

Fiction:

  • Amigoland and Brownsville by Oscar Casares
  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
  • Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros

Nonfiction:

  • North Toward Home by Willie Morris
  • In a Narrow Grave by Larry McMurtry
  • Goodbye to a River by John Graves
  • Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
  • Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town by Nate Blakeslee

Juvenile:

  • Dumplin by Julie Murphy
  • Hank the Cowboy by John Ericsson (a series)
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Vintage Texas postcard

Texas is a big state, and consequently I ended up with a big list of books on my Texas reading list.  Here are the books I actually read and enjoyed:

Fiction:

The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness by Rick Bass.  This novella is about a 44-year old woman who returns to the ranch where she was raised and where her mother died.  She looks back on her childhood and the influence of her grandfather who knew every inch of Prade Ranch along the Nueces River.  “Grandfather thought it was important to know the names of things — that once the names could be spoken, knowledge would follow.  He thought it was a fierce obligation of humanity to understand the names of the land as one would know the names of one’s own family.”  The entire story is an ode to a special place:  “. . . if you’re lucky, a place will shape and cut and bend you, will strengthen you and weaken you.  You trade your life for the privilege of this experience — the joy of a place, the joy of blood family; the joy of knowledge gotten by listening and observing.”

I went on the read some nonfiction essays by Bass (see below) that resurrect some of the themes in this novella — nature, land, legacy, belonging.

Remember Ben Clayton by Stephen Harrigan.  In this novel, a sculptor named Gil is commissioned by an old rancher to build a memorial to his son, Ben Clayton, who died in WWI.  Gil is aided by his daughter, Maureen, unmarried, with aspirations to become a sculptor in her own right.  Research into Ben’s life brings Gil up against Mr. Clayton’s secret past (he was abducted by Comanches as a young boy), the alienation of son and father, and the sorrow of a disfigured war veteran who was with Ben when he died.  Gil has his own secrets — he kept the existence of his mother from Maureen, depriving her of her grandmother.  This was a story about quiet grief, heartbreak, and the failures of hardened fathers.

The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan.  This novel is a great way to learn about the history of the issues leading up to the battle of the Alamo.  One learns that the Mexican government that ruled Texas required settlers to become Catholic (but turned a blind eye tho the practice of the Protestant religion) and outlawed slavery and indentured servitude, which prevented aspiring cotton plantation owners from using black slaves.  Many settlers felt that the distant Mexican government was indifferent to the needs of the Texas frontiersmen.

The novel’s protagonist, Edmund McGowan, is a botanist and naturalist whose life work was the discovery and documentation of the flora in Texas.  His crosses paths with a widowed innkeeper, Mary Mott and her son Terrell and several characters from Texas history — Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis, Stephen Austin, and Santa Ana.  And in this novel, McGowan is one of the few survivors of the Alamo.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.  Llewelyn Moss is out hunting when he comes across evidence of a drug deal gone bad in ” the baked terra-cotta terrain of the borderlands”  — dead bodies, guns, bullet-ridden vehicles, bags of heroin, and a case with more than $2 million.  He takes the money and tries to disappear with it.  But on his trail is a man who will not give up.  Ruthless, evil incarnate, he leaves a trail of murders as he follows the money.  The sheriff, in whose jurisdiction the first murders the place, comes to realize his weaknesses and inability to fix a world gone wrong.

One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer.  I’ve previously written about this book on my old blog.  You can read about it here.

The Loop by Joe Coomer.  Lyman is a 30-year-old orphan whose day job as a courtesy patrolman has him circling Forth Worth’s loop road to help stranded motorists, bury road kill, and remove debris to keep traffic flowing.  A parrot arrives at the door of Lyman’s trailer home, and he is convinced it is a messenger of some importance.  Lyman looks for meaning and understanding in the bird’s cryptic and strange utterances — “Shut up,” “I’m an eagle,” “Speak for yourself, and “MA17.”  Lyman tries to find the parrot’s owner with the help of irrepressible librarian, Fiona.  The search for the parrot’s past is mixed up with Lyman’s yearnings to uncover his own origins.

Texas by James Michener.  This was not my favorite of Michener’s writings, as I found it too didactic. This novel presents a long story of Texas history under the pretext of a five-member task force, appointed by the governor, working to formulate recommendations for how to safeguard its heritage and instill a love for its uniqueness.  The task force travels to various parts of Texas and calls on experts to tell them what is most important.

We learn about the early Spanish explorers and Hispanic influences, the Catholic missions and their efforts to Christianize, the military’s efforts to civilize and the slaughter of Indians, the farmers and businessmen who sought to utilize Texas resources.  Included are stories about cattle drives, the range, oil, football, politics, and real estate booms and busts.  All demonstrate the Texans’ ability to absorb setbacks and never give up.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles.  I featured this book as one of my favorite reads during February.  You can view that blog post here.  I liked this book so well that I read another of Jile’s novels:

The Color of Lightening by Paulette Jiles.  This is the fictionalized telling of the life of Britt Johnson, a former slave who became free upon moving to the Texas territory.  His wife and children were kidnapped by Comanche and Kiowa Indians during a raid.  Britt searches for the captives and is successful in bringing them home.

Meanwhile, Samuel Hammond, a Quaker, is assigned head of the Indian Bureau for Comanche and Kiowa tribes.  His Quaker philosophy of nonviolence is severely challenged by the savage raiding, kidnapping, and murder of settlers by the vengeful tribes.

This was a captivating way to learn about Texas history.

West of the Pecos by Zane Grey.  Young Terrill Lambeth rides out to the wilds of Texas with her widowed father.  He had always wanted a son, and for safety, Terrill travels disguised as a by.  They set out to acquire cattle and a ranch in the lawless area west of the Pecos River.

“All the same was this wild Pecos country, bare grass spots alternating with scaly patches, greasewood, and cactus contrasting with the gray of rocks, winding ridge and winding canyon all so monotonous and lonely, rolling endlessly up toward the east, on and on, a vast wasteland apparently extending to infinitude.”

When her father is murdered by cattle rustlers, Terrill struggles to hold on to the ranch.  She joins forces with Pecos Smith, a good man who is not afraid to fight to the death to protect his interests.  “Texas had been a battleground, and was blood-soaked from river to river.  No Texans but had been born to fight — no Texans even survived who did not fight.”

El Paso by Winston Groom.  This is another sweeping novel about a couple of Bostonians who go after Pancho Villa, the cold-blooded murderer who led a revolutionary army against the official Mexican government.  The Mexican government had sold off large tracts of land in its northern provinces to some of America’s wealthiest families — the Hearsts, Guggenheims, Harrimans, etc. — so that they could develop and build the area’s infrastructure that Mexico could not afford.  These wealthy men built huge ranches, mining operations, railroads, etc.  Now Pancho Villa was attacking their holdings to take back the land for the Mexican people.

In this story, the Shaughnessy family travels to Mexico with the intent to drive their cattle to market in El Paso and sell them for much-needed cash before Pancho Villa stole them.  Alas, they were too late;  Villa’s troops had already begun rustling the herd and more.  They murdered the ranch’s manager and kidnapped Shaughnessy’s two grandchildren.  Shaughnessy and his adopted son and heir take off in pursuit to get the children back.

Groom is a good writer (he is the author of Forrest Gump) and the narrative is compelling.

Borderline by Nevada Barr.  Barr writes a mystery series featuring National Park ranger Anna Pigeon.  In this book, Anna is on a medical leave of absence recovering from the trauma of killing a man.  She travels to Big Bend National Park to raft the Rio Grande river.  While rafting she discovers a pregnant woman entangled in the debris of flooding water.  The woman dies, but Anna saves the baby.  In investigating the mystery of the baby’s mother, Anna becomes immersed in the politics of the closed border and the high stakes of a campaign for governor.

Here she describes the landscape near the Rio Grande:  “Light was leaking around the few clouds on the eastern horizon and the giant reeds on the banks were turning from black to green.  The greedy desert gave up little ground to the intrusion of water-hungry plants.  Gray stony soil crabbed with the claws of sotol and ocotillo and horse-crippler cactus pushed nearly to the water’s edge.”  And, “. . . the land began to wrinkle then reared up in sudden bluffs, high and sheer and burnt-gold in the strong light.  Leading up to — or falling away from — this crown of shale were ash-gray hills pocked with cacti:  Here and there a splash of luminescent yellow-green or shocking pink from a blooming plant.”

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry.  This was my least favorite of the three McMurtry novels I read for this post.  It is about the adolescent preoccupations of Sonny and his best friend Duane, high school seniors, in the fictional town of Thalia on the windy Texas plains.

Dead Man’s Walk by Larry McMurtry.  We listened to an audiobook version of this novel, a prequel to Lonesome Dove, while driving the long empty roads of Texas. In it we are introduced to Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call when the youngsters first join the Texas Rangers.  Their long string of misadventures transported us along the endless miles of Texas highways.  The story tells about their brutal encounters with Comanche Buffalo Hump, hostile Mexican soldiers, and savage Apache Indians on their various expeditions in western Texas and Mexico.  All of the characters were well drawn and interesting, from loyal companions to arch enemies.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.  If I had to narrow my recommendations for Texas fiction to one book, this would be it.  It’s a long book, over 900 pages, but the characters and dialogue are so good that you want to just fall into the narrative and be taken away.  I read this book years ago and regret that I did not have time to reread it before our Texas trip.  I mentioned it briefly in a blog post in 2011, when I first read the book.  You can link to that post here.  I have on my “To-Do” list to watch the television series of this novel, which my friend Carol recommended.

Nonfiction:

A Thousand Deer: Four Generations of Hunting and the Hill Country by Rick Bass.  Bass is a geologist and nature writer who grew up in Houston.  In this book of essays he reflects on the land his family leased and used for deer hunting in the Hill Country of Texas.  “We were on our land.  We did not own it all, but it was ours because we loved it, belonged to it, and because we were engaged in its system. . . . It was ours because we belonged to it.”

Bass is a wonderful writer.  He says, “A close observation of nature cannot help but yield a poetic sensibility, and who observes nature more closely than a hunter? . . . Like little else in the world, hunting demands presence and attentiveness, summons an imagination electric with possibility.”

“You learn the outlines of the place — the fence lines, the road, the rough shape — and then, over the years, you begin to explore the interiors, following the creeks and ridge lines at first — getting lost, finding yourself; getting lost, finding yourself — stumbling often.  But then you begin to cherish getting lost — you seek out the deeper interiors, the really wild places — and out of that lost and groping stumbling, a fluency emerges.”

“What is the sum of this daily appreciating, and even becoming accustomed to these things:  not taking-them-for-granted, but becoming accustomed to them, until you become so comfortable with the shape of things that their presence in your life fits you like your own skin? . . . a sudden sense of profound belonging . . .

Portraits of Courage: A Commander In Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors by George W. Bush.  This is a book of 66 painted portraits and short biographical essays by former President George W. Bush.  I gained an appreciation for Bush after seeing him as an artist and philanthropist, a respect that I did not have for him when he was President.  In his retirement, Bush and his wife, Laura, created the George W. Bush Presidential Center, and among its missions is supporting war veterans in transition to civilian life, wellness, and health.  All of the wounded warriors in Bush’s portraits are portrayed with dignity, honor and respect.

In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas by Larry McMurtry.  This book of essays chronicles the death of the cowboy way of life and the movement of Texans from country to the suburbs.  “The cowboy’s temperament has not changed much since the nineteenth century; it is his world that has changed, and the change has been a steady shrinkage.  There are no more trail herds, no more wide open cattle towns, no longer that vast stretch of unfenced land between Laredo and Calgary. . . . The big western ranches are gradually breaking down into smaller and smaller ranches, and with the advent of pickups and horse trailers it is no longer necessary to spend weeks on roundup.  The effect of this has been to diminish the cowboy’s isolation, his sense of himself as a man alone.”

“Life in the country nowadays usually means life in or near the small town, and the small towns do not enlarge one’s character, they shrink it.”

Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall by Krista Schlyer.  This book of photographs and words was compiled by Schlyer to help “educate the country on the impacts of the border wall” where the U.S. meets Mexico.  So much of the border along California and Arizona is already walled.  Since much of the Texan border is formed by the Rio Grande River, fewer portions of the wall exist in this state.  The international boundary means nothing to wildlife and animals, and Schlyer’s photographs of the land, wildlife, and people help to demonstrate the folly of walls.

Juvenile and Young Adult:

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.  I highly recommend The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, a story about an 11-year-old girl and her relationship with her grandfather who helps open her eyes to the wonders of the natural world.  It’s an ode to life, to paying attention, to thinking.  If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of keeping a nature journal, this book will inspire you.  There is now a sequel, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, which is also excellent.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz.  Sal (Salvadore) is a senior in high school and reluctant to move away to college.  He was adopted at age three by a Mexican-American man (who happens to be gay) when his mother died.  The book portrays a rare and exceptionally close relationship between Sal and his Dad, but even they harbor a few secrets.  Sal doesn’t remember his mother, but he is showered with love from his Dad, his grandmother Mima, and his father’s siblings.  Sal is also blessed with a couple of good friends, including his best friend, Sam (Samantha).

Of course, change is inevitable, and as much as Sal wants his live to stay the same, he must accept the forces of change:  Sam’s mother dies, Mima’s cancer has returned and she is dying, Sal’s father’s former boyfriend moves back to town and that relationship is restarted, another close friend is turned out of his house by his drug addicted mother. Sal wonders about his biological father.

Like many young adult novels, this one delves into relationships and social issues.  In this one, they are examined from the relative safety of Sal’s solid home life.  It is his friends who live with fraught parental relationships, dysfunctional families, poverty.  But I liked this book enough to give the author another look — I’ve requested one of his earlier books, Aristotle and Dante and the Secrets of the Universe, from my library.

****

Note:  This post is the 9th in a series of Armchair Travel through books.  You can find my earlier posts about reading my way through Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Oregon archived in my old blog at http://rosemarywashington.wordpress.com.  Just go to “Categories” on the right column of the page and click on “Armchair Travel.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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