Growing up in Texas in the mid-20th century, I was taught a very specific version of Texas history. According to the State Song, as well as our Social Science curriculum, Texas was “boldest and grandest/Withstanding every test/Oh empire wide and glorious/You stand supremely blest.” In any conflict with another culture, Texans were steadfastly in the right.
How were the Mexicans represented? By the arch-villain, General Santa Anna, the Napoleon of the West. Apparently any Mexicans in the area now known as Texas were there for one reason – to wage war on the heroic Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, and the martyrs of the Alamo.
Indians? The bloodthirsty Comanches finally got what they had coming to them when the iconic Texas Rangers teamed up with the US Army and wiped them out.
Civil War? Texas stood with the Glorious South, pro-segregation, pro-slavery, and pro-secession.
Goes a long way toward explaining Rick Perry, doesn’t it?
Reading Phillip Meyer’s new novel, The Son, gave me a whole new perspective. The sweeping story of Texas is personified through the lives of three generations of the McCullough family: Eli, Peter, and Jeanne Anne.
The patriarch, Eli, was born on March 2, 1836, the date that Texas became an independent republic. He grounds us in the historical context when he tells us the signing of Texas’ Declaration of Independence from Mexico took place
in a humble shack at the edge of the Brazos [River]. Half the signatories were malarial; the other half had come to Texas to escape a hangman’s noose. I was the first male child of this new republic.
Eli’s life is by far the most interesting of the three as it covers what was truly the Wild West. I don’t want to give away anything that would ruin the cliffhanging suspense of this story. Suffice it to say there is ample sex, violence, and bloodshed to satisfy any Cormac McCarthy fan.
Eli’s son, Peter, was born in 1870. His story opens in 1915 at the time of conflict between Anglo landholders and Tejanos, Mexican landholders who had originally settled in southwest Texas. It is Peter’s voice which narrates the ongoing struggle between Texas and Mexico over property rights, crucial during a time when “cattle was king.” It is from Peter’s point of view that we witness the violence that accompanied this struggle.
Jeannie, Peter’s granddaughter, was born in 1926. She tells the story of a strong woman trying to find a place in a paternalistic society. During her time as the predominant McCullough, Texas changed from a cattle state to an oil state. It was Jeannie’s job to preserve and expand the family fortune as the state’s main export changed.
You may want to make note of this timeline; early in my reading I had some trouble keeping the chronology and relationships straight as each of these characters’ stories is told individually in alternating chapters.
The strength that Meyer brings to what is potentially a story we’ve heard before is his attention to detail. His knowledge of the time and place makes it come alive. In researching this book, which took him five years to write, Meyer did extensive first-hand research. He tells an interviewer for Amazon.com:
I took weeks of animal tracking classes, spent a month at Blackwater (the private military contractor) learning combat skills and soaking up the warrior culture for the sections on both the Comanches and the early Texas Rangers; I taught myself to bowhunt and killed several deer, ate them, tanned various deer hides. I shot two buffalo (whose meat was destined for restaurants and grocery stores) and because the Plains tribes sometimes did it for survival purposes, I drank a cup of warm blood from the neck of one of the animals. Not recommended. And I spent months in the woods, mountains, and deserts of Texas—I slept outside, hiked, or hunted almost everywhere the book takes place, took careful notes on and pictures of all the plants and animals I saw, then realized that the ecology of Texas had changed so enormously over the past 150 years that my notes weren’t necessarily valid. So had to go back to the historical and archeological record to research about exactly how and where and why it changed—the plants and animals I was seeing between 2008-2013 were not necessarily the plants and animals that were there in 1850 or 1870 or 1915.
That research paid off in accuracy and detail. Some readers have complained that it is depressing, too gory, too graphic but, in my opinion, that is its strength. This story tells the truth about Texas’ past, not the whitewashed version I learned in school.