Texas. The Lone Star State. The Alamo. Oil. Guns. Football. Border politics. Where do we start?
My husband and I drove with my sister-in-law from California to the east coast along the southern route late one fall sometime in the early to mid-’00s. On that trip we drove across Interstate 20, through Abilene, Dallas, and then on to Shreveport, Louisiana (probably crossing the Sabine River bottoms). Along the way, we came across what started as a joke and ended up being a surprise highlight of the trip–the East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore, Texas. Previously, I had only crossed the upper panhandle on Interstate 40 from Oklahoma through Amarillo to New Mexico. I’ve also visited relatives in Austin, but not had the opportunity to do much sightseeing. One of my bucket list items is Big Bend National Park–a birder’s paradise at a bend in the Rio Grande along the US-Mexico border. (It’s a more appealing location to the people who would accompany me than Nebraska’s Platte River migration.) Terrell County is located at the second big bend in the river, to the east of the park.
So I’m not terribly familiar with Texas. And Texas is enormous! But I’ll try, as usual, to cover a variety of locations and time periods in my choices without ending up with too many on my list… We’ll see.
When it comes to lists of books for Texas, Lonesome Dove gets all the attention, but Larry McMurtry’s classic anti-Western is one that I’ve somehow never read. It probably has something to do with my father’s love of old Western movies, and my ambivalence to the same. I remember being aware of various television miniseries based on the book, but I’ve avoided this book in all its versions. So why break a winning streak? Actually, from what I’ve read, only parts of Lonesome Dove take place in Texas. McMurtry is fairly prolific, but seems to have mostly avoided the gaps I was having trouble filling. I’ve added Leaving Cheyenne, but, honestly, I’m more interested in News of the World by Paulette Jiles, which starts in Wichita Falls and travels to San Antonio, and includes a perspective sympathetic to Native Americans. At least I’m including books by Cormac McCarthy and Joe Lansdale, two other iconic Texan writers.
I’m concerned that the 2 books I’ve seen so far that mention Native American tribes both involve whites being captured and raised by them. It seems to set up the usual stereotypes. And while several descriptions indicate that they deal with race, I haven’t seen much to indicate that they include Hispanic points of view. All of this may, in fact, be part and parcel of Texas–some acknowledgement of racism toward African Americans, but less awareness of racism toward other groups–but I’ll try to avoid judgement–and stereotypes of my own–for now. I’m looking forward to getting to know Texas better.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (2012) – Young Adult or Young Reader choice. Set in El Paso, Texas in the 1980s, this coming-of-age story won the Stonewall and Lambda awards for LGBT Children’s and Young Adult Fiction. Ari(stotle) and Dante are both loners struggling to fit in: “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world” (from Goodreads publisher’s blurb). UPDATE: This was a good book, but not great for our challenge. There were some lovely bits about the rain in the desert that were very well done, but I just didn’t feel as if I knew any more about Texas–about El Paso or the people–after reading it. It could have been set anywhere. I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t a great fit for this particular challenge.
11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011) – I’m repeatedly amazed by how prolific Stephen King is! And though I generally avoid horror, I’ve enjoyed several of his fantasy books. I’m really excited about this one–a time-travel book to try to prevent Kennedy’s assassination. The contemporary part of the story takes place in King’s home state of Maine, but, obviously, the time traveling part takes place in and around Dallas leading up to November 22, 1963. (Those familiar with King’s It may get a kick out of the crossovers–there’s a significant section of the book that takes place in the same town in Maine as It, immediately after the end of the first part of that novel. Several characters from It feature in this one too.)
The After Party by Anton DiSclafani (2016) – “A story of lifelong female friendship–in all its intimate agony and joy–set within the microcosm of 1950s Texas wealth, beauty, and expectation” (from the back of the Advanced Reader’s Copy). Set in 1950s Houston’s social scene–the glamour scene and gossip columns. “The money may flow as freely as the oil, but the freedom and power all belong to the men. What happens when a woman of indecorous appetites and desires … wants more?” (from the back of the ARC). I found this at a local Little Free Library.
The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale (2000) – Narrated by Harry as an old man, the novel tells his memories of 1933 when he was 11 and living with his family near the Sabine River bottoms. The southern end of the Sabine River forms part of the border between Texas and Louisiana–the dividing line between the Old South and the New Southwest. Young Harry discovers the body of a murdered black woman. And when more bodies are discovered, racial tensions soar. Harry’s father is the local constable, and oversees an amateur and racially-charged investigation. Lansdale was born in Texas and is a prolific writer, many of whose books are set in his home state.
UPDATE: I also read Savage Season by Joe R Lansdale, which takes place partly in the same town as The Bottoms–Marvel Creek but around 1980. I am doing Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder challenge, and one of the items is to read a mystery without a female victim. Obviously The Bottoms didn’t meet that criteria, but Savage Season does. This book is also the first book in Lansdale’s popular Hap and Leonard series, which are all set in East Texas. If the sexual nature of the murders in The Bottoms bothers you, you might try this one (though it ends with quite a blood bath).
Say Goodbye for Now by Catherine Ryan Hyde (2016) – Set on an isolated west Texas ranch in 1959, the novel includes an interracial relationship. Two young boys, one black and newly-arrived in town, bring a wounded wolf-dog to a woman doctor living alone on the ranch outside a small town. It’s billed as a “feel-good” story, but it certainly covers some hard-hitting topics. And it would seem that it could be very good for our challenge since the setting seems integral to the story.
Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry (1962) – This is one of many McMurtry books set in Thalia, Texas, near Wichita Falls where McMurtry grew up. This one spans sixty years of the twentieth century, following the lives of two men and the woman they both love but who marries someone else, despite bearing them each a child. McMurtry has a reputation for doing a fantastic job with his Texas settings.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2016) – Set after the Civil War, this novel follows the journey of “an aging itinerant news reader [who] agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people … [and] explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb). The unlikely pair travel from Wichita Falls 400 miles south to San Antonio. I haven’t seen many that encompass a Native American point of view, so this may be a nice addition to our Texas list.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (2005) – Many McCarthy books take place along the Texas-Mexico border, as does this one. McCarthy lived in El Paso for a number of years. I haven’t read any of them, or seen any of the movies made from them (despite the fact that the 2007 movie of this one won 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture). Many of the others are historical, but this one is more contemporary (1980s)–and I actually didn’t find many contemporary novels set in Texas. “One day, Llewellyn Moss finds a pickup truck surrounded by a bodyguard of dead men. A load of heroin and two million dollars in cash are still in the back. When Moss takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction of catastrophic violence that not even the law–in the person of aging, disillusioned Sheriff Bell–can contain” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb).
The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan (2000) – No list for Texas would be complete without some element of the story of the Alamo and Texas independence. I’m tempted to add Phillip Thomas Tucker’s Exodus from the Alamo: The Anatomy of the Last Stand Myth just to be contrary. It would make a good counterpoint, but I probably will just read this one. For this challenge, since I’m more interested in what makes Texans tick, the standard retelling is probably more appropriate than the myth breaker.
Giant by Edna Ferber (1952) – An American classic family saga set among the cattle ranchers and oil barons of the first half of the twentieth century. It was the basis for a film starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson. A cattle rancher brings a Virginian socialite home to Texas as his wife. The wife finds it easier to love the man than Texas. “A sensational and enthralling saga, Ferber masterfully captures the essence of Texas with all its wealth and excess, cruelty and prejudice, pride and violence” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb).
The Son by Philipp Meyer (2012) – Another family saga, with the twist of one of the main characters being taken prisoner by Comanche as a child and raised by them. “An epic, multigenerational saga of power, blood, and land that follows the rise of one unforgettable Texas family from the Comanche raids of the 1800s to the border raids of the early 1900s to the oil booms of the 20th century. Part epic of Texas, part classic coming-of-age story, part unflinching portrait of the bloody price of power” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb).
Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson (1999) – A non-fiction account of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas in September 1900. This is a city and area of Texas not really covered above, and an important historical event, but I don’t usually include non-fiction in this reading challenge. “Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged in a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over six thousand people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history–and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb).
UPDATE: Oof. This is why I don’t read much non-fiction. This book is full of interesting information about hurricanes, but it’s put together in a confusing mish-mash. One minute we’re reading something about the actual storm in 1900, the next we’re reading something about Isaac Cline’s weather service training 20 years before, then suddenly we’re reading about a hurricane encountered by Christopher Columbus in 1500, or something about the invention of the barometer, or a cyclone that hit London in 1700. I may make it through this book somehow, but I doubt it. So far the main fact I’ve picked up that pertains to our challenge is that in 1900, Galveston was a serious competitor for top seaport along the Texas coast, tied with Houston. The destruction of the storm gave the advantage to Houston and Galveston never fully recovered.
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger (1988) – Football is an important part of Texas. “Odessa is not known to be a town big on dreams, but the Panthers help keep the hopes and dreams of this small, dusty town going. Socially and racially divided, its fragile economy follows the treacherous boom-bust path of the oil business.In bad times, the unemployment rate barrels out of control; in good times, its murder rate skyrockets. But every Friday night from September to December, when the Permian High School Panthers play football, this West Texas town becomes a place where dreams can come true” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb). I’m tempted, as this is another contemporary one, and Odessa is another area we don’t really have a book for. Nor do we really have something that looks at that Texas obsession with high school football, but even though it was made into a movie with Billy Bob Thornton, it’s a non-fiction book, so it’s an alternate for now.