Harrigan’s inclusion of a botanist as one of the fictional characters we follow across Texas, makes this book a great one for this challenge, but the pervasive mythology of the Alamo makes it an essential one.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. We are in Texas now.

There are many, many books about the Alamo. I chose Harrigan’s because it’s a well-known and well-regarded fictional retelling–as I’ve mentioned before, I prefer fiction to non-fiction for this challenge. But don’t let that fool you–this is a historically-accurate account (even the blizzard faced by Santa Anna’s army as they marched to San Antonio). Harrigan has created a number of fictional characters who act alongside the historical players. He doesn’t presume to tell us what those players were thinking, though he may tell us what other people assumed they were thinking.

He also doesn’t fall into the trap of hero worship for these larger-than-life characters of Texas mythology. Harrigan’s Houston is a drunken, weak politician whose reluctance to engage the Mexican army led to large numbers of desertions.

He had lost control of his army, had been losing control for weeks to his fractious subordinates and the near-mutinous men they commanded. Today, at long last, the army had goaded him into fighting. They had advanced across the prairie toward the Mexican camp as a thrown-together band played a love song called “Come to the Bower.” They allowed Houston to direct them in one well-ordered volley, but when he tried to get them to reload and fire again they simply unleashed themselves and ran toward the breastworks with their uncharged weapons, content to club and stab the enemy without any further consultation with their commander in chief.

Stephen Harrigan in The Gates of the Alamo

Harrigan’s Santa Anna committed atrocities and war crimes, but was also an engaging and charismatic leader–at least until his cowardice at San Jacinto. Jim Bowie was a belligerent drunk who squabbled with Travis over leadership of the rebels. Travis himself was a young, prideful philanderer. Davy Crockett is, perhaps, the only hero who emerges mostly untarnished. Harrigan indicates he came to Texas to soothe his wounded pride and regain his purpose in life after losing an election. But Crockett retains a hero’s mystique–liked by everyone, friendly and easy-going, offering advice when asked but not overstepping his chosen role, giving comfort to those around him just by his presence. Even those who recognize his glad-handing as the reflex of a politician are caught in his spell of likability.

Crockett was not that way at all. He had a soft heart, it seemed, and he took an interest where another man might not. Joe liked him, and all the other men at the post did too, though some of them still couldn’t believe he was standing there in front of them in flesh and blood, the most famous man in America except for President Jackson.

Stephen Harrigan in The Gates of the Alamo

The descriptions of Texas landscapes are lovely and realistic, spattered with bluebonnets and cattle dung:

In the late afternoon he found himself in wild, rocky pastureland littered with flattened mounds of cow dung. Longhorn cattle stared at him from a careful distance, slowly sweeping their unwieldy horns from side to side. Javelinas trotted through the wooded gulleys on surprisingly dainty legs. Hawks perched on the bare limbs of the trees, warm in their plumage, sated, indifferent. Before nightfall he found a vaquero’s vacant camp: a holding pen, a jacal, an horno, a brush shed for tack.

Stephen Harrigan in The Gates of the Alamo

And occasionally they are a bit too full of the botanist’s details:

He passed over groves of fustic trees, forests of mimosa, vast stretches of waste ground claimed by mezquitales. Below him everywhere he looked were undescribed species of Opuntia, and strange luxuriant grasses unnoticed even by Drummond. With his hawk’s vision he saw through the tree limbs and the underbrush. Here was a little Asclepiadacea with its winged fruits, here a broad-leafed Cooperia, here a glorious palmetto fifteen feet high. He soared over the coastal prairies, the groves of live oaks and pecan, the fields of Marsilea, the dune grasses giving way to bare sand and its pavement of broken shell and finally to the quiet blue water of the bays with their rich beds of turtle grass.

Stephen Harrigan in The Gates of the Alamo

Harrigan makes it clear that many of the towns were founded by Mexicans, and that the Tejanos were of Mexican descent; there are often issues of language between the rebels and both the Mexican army and the other inhabitants of Texas–whose wishes in this war of independence are largely ignored, both by the self-styled “Texians” and by Harrigan. In fact, one issue I’ve often wondered about–the widespread mispronunciation of Amarillo and other place names of obvious Spanish descent–is only mentioned briefly by Harrigan:

“Refugio.” He pronounced it in the proper Spanish way, not in the garbled approximation of the Irish colonists.

Stephen Harrigan in The Gates of the Alamo

Which made me wonder how Texans today pronounce the name. According to this site, it’s pronounced “ref-fury-oh”! The site also lists a number of other place names in Texas. Some of them are pronounced as they would be in Spanish (Guadalupe), while others seem to have an English origin but are pronounced in a more Spanglish way (Humble–as in English except with a silent Spanish “H”). And others are… well, weird, like Refugio. And what about Bexar?

Bexar is the original name of San Antonio–San Antonio de Bexar–and today it’s the name of the Texas county which includes San Antonio. And it’s pronounced “Bear.” From what I can piece together, this is a shortening/slurring of the Spanish pronunciation of the X. Just as Mexico is pronounced “May-hee-co” so Bexar would have been pronounced “Bay-har,” which, when spoken quickly, was probably interpreted by Anglo settlers as a slightly funny-sounding “Bear.”

Texas is huge. So as I’ve read all of our Texas books so far, I’ve been watching for indications about how the people are different from one part of the state to the other. Mostly, I haven’t found much. But Harrigan does give us one tidbit:

Joe found it hard to believe that he was still in the province of Texas, so different was Béxar from San Felipe. It was not just the language, not just the attitude toward his black skin. Here was a place where everything was on the inside—people seemed to carry their thoughts within themselves in the way they built their houses with secret courtyards that could not be seen from the streets. In San Felipe everything was visible, everything was fulminating talk and action, and the tall wooden houses with their white paint seemed to be clamoring for notice.

Stephen Harrigan in The Gates of the Alamo

Maybe we see that a bit with the two Westerns we’re looking at–No Country for Old Men and Lonesome Dove. Many of the characters have that quiet, laconic, stoic attitude Joe seems to be observing here, while others–Grandma in The Bottoms, Harrigan’s Houston and Bowie–are the more gregarious, larger than life characters we tend to associate with Texas. Both of the Westerns mentioned above take place along the border in southwestern Texas, while The Bottoms takes place on the opposite side of the state.

But Joe’s observation about, “the attitude toward his black skin,” being different, makes me wonder if the racism that’s so prevalent in The Bottoms has as much to do with the location setting of the book–along the Louisiana border–as with the time setting–in the 1930s. Maybe we’ll get a clue from Say Goodbye for Now by Catherine Ryan Hyde, which is set in western Texas in the 1950s.

Overall, a great choice for our reading challenge for Texas. There are a couple more books coming for Texas. Stay tuned!

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Books, South (Western), Southwest


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