The Short Version: A sweeping epic of a single family’s rise and fall over the course of the last two hundred years in Texas. Family patriarch Eli McCullough was born the same day as the Republic of Texas – his great-granddaughter Jeannie will see the new millennium. Meanwhile, Texas – and the world – change in ways no one could ever have imagined.
The Review: I had just started this book on the way back from New Orleans, en route to the ToBX party at Housing Works – and shortly after I arrived there, I was reminded of a warning from the ToB comments: this is not a McCarthy-esque novel, except perhaps in that it takes place in Texas and there is some blood. But the more accurate analogy, one that Meyer even makes himself (albeit without mentioning the title), is to Edna Ferber’s Texas epic Giant. This is the story of a family and of a family’s lens on world events. You’d never find such feeling in McCarthy and he battles much more Biblically and existentially than Meyer does with the human condition. None of these are knocks on either author, just simply an acknowledgement of differences. Now, let’s begin.
The novel flips between three points of view: Eli, Peter, and Jeannie. Three important generations of the family, all somehow reflecting the novel’s title. Eli is the first son of Texas, Peter his son (and the black sheep of the family, in many ways), and Jeannie is a ‘son’ in the sense that it is she who inherits control of the family business in an age when women simply didn’t do that sort of thing. They are all exemplars of that wonderful concept of family: you don’t get to pick ’em, nor can you kill ’em. The battles that they undergo with each other and with the rest of the family across these nearly-200 years are epic and yet intimate – and they reflect the battles happening all around the world at the time.
The most interesting story, far and away, is that of Eli. As a young man on the frontier, his family is raped and murdered by Comanches – but he is spared, taken with them and welcomed into the Comanche fold. He never gives up his basic state of existence – that of being a white man – but he also learns and develops an understanding that I think escaped most if not all of his contemporaries: the Indians are people, just like the white man. Seeing the westward push of the white man and the systematic genocide of an indigenous people from the perspective of those who fought back… it’s horrifying. And Eli is, I think, horrified. His time out in the wild informs his time back in society – and to watch him grapple with a world leaving him behind is, perhaps, the other McCarthy-esque moment in the novel. Eli McCollough would have rolled his eyes at John Grady Cole, but I bet he would’ve seen a kindred spirit in him to some extent.
Whereas his own son, Peter, attempts to broach a greater understanding of peace – and Eli, now, is the one who doesn’t understand. Peter’s a bit of a drip (it doesn’t help that his section is told via journal entries and they are, for the most part, actual journal entries as opposed to ‘journal entries’ that are really just third-person narration scenes with a little artistic license) but his heart is in the right place – he’s never more righteous and in the right than when he attempts to stand up to his father in the early chapters. It is in that moment that the seeds are sown for the destruction of the family (a fourth ‘son’ figure appears late in the novel – a twist I won’t give away, although it’s right there in the table of contents) and we realize that there’s really only one route for this novel to take. Jeannie’s story is interesting but not entirely original – there is a sense of a man writing a woman’s voice at times, not terribly so but enough that it catches you every once and a while. Jeannie just never felt quite as alive as the others – but then, Peter too pales in comparison to his father.
There was some talk during the ToB of Meyer being a little overzealous with his research – I’m not sure that I minded it terribly much, although there were times where a bit too much description filtered in about the creation of this weapon or the specifics of this type of horse. Oddly, I didn’t so much mind the descriptions of the scalping or the death – it was technicolor but never stomach-turning. The West was a violent place, perhaps nowhere so violent as Texas, and it’s an honest expression of the reality to see the gruesomeness of death on the frontier.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Meyer doesn’t strike out for any particularly new territories here – they’ve all been explored, a situation the people of the mid-1800s might have commiserated with – but that doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. This is the sort of story that Americans do really well: a sweeping epic of a single family’s rise and fall. It’s a story as old as the world (look at the great houses of any empire ever) but in the compressed historical scope of the USA, it feels as big and grand as our fair country.