Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
This ambitious historical novel relates the history of Texas from 1836 through the present day. The story is told through three narrators whose lives span five generations of the fictional McCullough family, beginning with the birth of Eli in March 1836 on the same day Texas won independence from Mexico.
At age 13, Eli was kidnapped by the Comanches, who murdered his mother and sister. He adapts to life with the Comanches, even becoming the chief’s adopted son. But after the tribe is devastated by smallpox, Eli returns to the white world and becomes a Texas Ranger, whose principal occupation was fighting and killing Indians.
Eli represents a “type” of Texan male that may be characterized as undereducated, yet omnicompetent. When the Civil War comes, he becomes a brevet colonel and leads a group of rangers who call themselves RMNs (Rich Men’s N_____’s) in a contemptuous reference to the ideals of Southern chivalry. After the war, he becomes a very successful rancher, and later an oil tycoon. Although generally amoral, Eli maintains a code of loyalty to his close associates, whether they be Comanche tribesmen or fellow rangers, asserting:
“You could butcher and pillage but as long as you did it for people you loved, it never mattered.”
The other two narrators are Eli’s son Peter, and Jeannie, Eli’s great granddaughter. Peter may be the only character in the book with a true conscience. However, he does not have Eli’s power or force of personality. The target of violence for this generation changes from Indians to Hispanics. Peter greatly regrets (but does nothing to prevent) the killing of all but one of a Spanish neighbor family, after which his family takes over their land. Even his regret, though, earns him the disrespect of the rest of his family.
By the time Peter’s granddaughter, Jeannie, is born, the McColloughs have become very wealthy ranchers with huge land holdings. In time Jeannie marries a competent oil engineer, and learns the oil business from him. After his untimely death, she becomes fabulously wealthy through the family’s oil holdings, although she prefers being a rancher. As Jeannie’s life comes to an end, she reflects back on the overarching importance of land to the McCulloughs, and the “butchery” required to make that land their own. It may not be “just Chinatown,” but it’s “just Texas” instead.
Discussion: Although each individual narrator’s tale is told chronologically, the book’s chapters jump from one narrator to another in no particular order. The effect is somewhat like an old movie serial in which a character is left in a perilous situation, the resolution of which is postponed until after we see what different (or, occasionally the same) characters were doing a generation (or three) earlier or later.
There is a lot of violence in this novel, quite detailed at times. Moreover, while the story of the setting is so central, Meyer’s characters are more fully and realistically developed than those in other books that describe a place by way of a family saga, such as the books of James Michener. Meyer reprises several themes developed in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove: e.g., the Comanches were VERY tough Indians and not all horses are equal. The locale and “atmosphere” of the book are also reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, although Meyer’s writing is more direct and less stylistic than McCarthy’s.
If there is a lesson to be inferred from the book, it is that Texas (and by implication, American) history is a series of bloody conquests in which ruthless, well-armed men prevail over less well-armed adversaries. It is a story well-told and entertaining, but a bit discouraging. Nonetheless, Meyer can’t help admiring courage, particularly among the less well-armed. For example, the Comanches are portrayed as rather noble if very cruel. In the final chapter, Eli leads his rangers against a band of Lipan Apaches (a small western tribe) and kills all of them but a nine year old boy whom they leave “as a witness.” The boy, armed only with a bow and arrows, then pursues the mounted rangers on foot for twenty miles. Eli observes, “A child like that would be worth a thousand men today. We left him standing on the riverbank. As far as I know he is looking for me yet.”
Evaluation: I enjoyed this book, but I am able to keep savagery and abuse walled off in their fictional realms, and am not too affected by them. I know that Jill would find this book too disturbing, but if you like Cormac McCarthy or if you were a fan of Lonesome Dove, I think you will find this book as riveting as I did.
Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2013