Texas holds a special place in the minds and hearts of Americans. The westward-seeking pioneers of the 1700’s and 1800’s, insatiable for land, infiltrated and began to settle the vast holdings of Spain and Mexico. Dreamers and visionaries as well as dirt farmers and hustlers were attracted to the promise of the immense territory. The scale of the land, coupled with the larger-than-life, almost mythic nature of its heroes, has led to the fascination that Americans have with the state and its inhabitants. Reinforced by the intense pride of Texans and spread around the world by Hollywood, there is a vision of Texas as symbolic of the best of the pioneering spirit of America: independent, proud of its past, looking toward the future, bursting with life and energy.
In Texas, his latest monumental novel, James A. Michener takes a wide-ranging look at the events and people that shaped the land and developed its legendary status among the states. As with several of his earlier novels, such as Hawaii (1959), Centennial (1974), and Chesapeake (1978), Michener uses the lives of fictional characters, intertwined with real personages and historical facts, to illustrate the history of a place. In this case, there are five families—the Garzas, the Quimpers, the Macnabs, the Cobbs, and the Rusks—each of which is representative of one of the different cultures that tamed and settled a vast and generally harsh region. Their stories are both tied together and moved forward by another group, a contemporary Texas governor’s task force. Composed of five members, the task force is charged with researching what Texas children should be taught about their history and how it should be taught, in preparation for the sesquicentennial celebration of statehood. Four of the members are direct descendants of the principal families: Efraín Garza, a university professor; Lorenzo Quimper, a brash Texas tycoon involved in several business interests, politics, and football; Lorena Cobb, the daughter and granddaughter of two Texas senators; and Ransom Rusk, an oil and real-estate billionaire. The fifth member, Travis Barlow, serves as narrator when necessary. Michener’s alter ego, Barlow is an “outside” scholar, returning to Texas from a position in Colorado.
After a brief introduction and explanation of the task force, Michener begins his story with the story of the first Garza. Fittingly enough, he is a mestizo, born of an Indian mother and a Spanish father. More important, however, he is bright, curious, and courageous. He accompanies the conquistadores as they explore the new land and search for gold, finally settling in the territory then known as Tejas. Among his descendants will be numbered artists, outlaws, and scholars.
As the focus shifts to the influx of settlers from Kentucky and Tennessee, the reader is introduced to the Quimper family. Down on their luck, they are lured by the promise of land in Tejas. The mother, Mattie, is representative of the indomitable women who helped to open the frontier and hold the family together. Her son, Yancey, is a lazy braggart who somehow manages to turn potential disasters into personal triumphs.
The Macnabs, father and son, exemplify the European immigrants who came to Texas, specifically the Scotch-Irish. They arrive just in time to participate in the great events of Texas independence: the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto. Otto Macnab, the son, is one of the most fully developed characters in the book, figuring prominently as one of the original Texas Rangers.
The Cobbs emigrate to Texas from the Old South, bringing with them the cotton trade and the loyalties that divide the country in the Civil War. They maintain their gentility and remain the aristocrats of the state, with two generations serving Texas as senators.
Of all the families, the Rusks begin most deeply in tragedy and, perhaps, rise the highest. Again, a strong woman is the source of strength in the family. The victim of appalling Comanche cruelty, she overcomes her misfortunes to found a cattle empire based on the famed Texas longhorns. These riches multiply when her land is found to contain one of the richest oil fields in the United States.
Although the same families appear for generations, few characters are seen over a long period of time. Most appear in relatively short episodes or vignettes, which in themselves are memorable but do not necessarily contribute to a sense of continuous narrative flow. Rather there is a sense of the continual sweep of history as one character...
(The entire section is 1873 words.)