I N THE REALM OF historical fiction, few novels could be closer to fiction than James A. Michener's Texas This new novel by an author known for his site-specific tales, is little more than a Texas sized data base with a soap opera fairy tale grafted on.
The most striking aspect of Texas is its detail. Usually readers of detail come away with a feeling for their subject as well as a knowledge of it. But even though Texas gives 1096 pages of historically correct facts, it doesn't give a real feeling for the state. It is very easy to read Texas, know every minute detail about the state, think you have a feel for its wide open spaces and larger-than-life characters, and really not know much at all.
The reason readers won't get a feel for the real Texas is that Michener picked an epic story to tell the state's tale. The characters and the romantic story line hide more about Texas than they reveal. They show the legend and myth, a surprising amount of which is true, but they obscure the more subtle, underlying truths about the history of Texas and Texans.
Yes, there have been billionaires like Bunker Hunt and Michener's Quimper, who have lost more money in a year than Harvard spends. Yes, there have been slick, amazingly successful politicians like Lyndon Johnson or Michener's Ransom Rusk and ranches like the King ranch that are so big that it makes more sense to fly accross them than to drive. Texas and its history are full of people and things which shock non-Texans.
But these features hide the equally Texan and equally historically important characteristics which lie below the bluster and Hollywood romance that make this novel entertaining. Texans were the violent Comanche and Mexican killers that Michener made his out to be. But most of the time (in between the occassional Indian raids, Mexican Wars, American Wars, and lynchings) Texans were tackling the element that formed them--the vast, wealthy space called Texas. The land theme, however, lacks entertainment value--aneedotes about rugged Texans replacing fence posts does not make good novel material. So Michener sacrifices real education on his subject for stereotyped adventure.
MICHENER'S CHARACTERS make Texas out to be a Hollywood production. It is the most exotic place with the most exotic people in North America, but making every Texan as a most honest, least scrupulous, or add-your-own-superlative adjective variation on John Wayne just isn't real. Otto McNab, the Mexican-killingest, honestest, independentest, good-community-manest Texas Ranger is almost so absurd that the book becomes humor rather than drama. There were some pretty tough Rangers, but none so epic in every quality.
The best characters are the historical figures, like Santa Anna and Sam Houston. Michener, however, didn't bother to treat them with sensitive, accurate portrayals. He wrote about them what people generally thought about them. Some of the best parts of the book are the scenes that told the truth about these historical figures. Michener's portrayal of Sam Houston, who was Governor of Tennessee, fled in a scandal, and went on to become President of the Republic of Texas and Senator from the state, will probably go into American folklore.
Even though the book starts out dull with a fairy tale about the discovery of Texas, it hits high gear after about 50 pages. From then on, all of Michener's characters wander through, Texas history like threads around the core of a baseball.
They are there at all of the action filled moments, the battle, the politicking, and the arguing. His device of constantly returning to an imagined panel of historical researchers drawn from prominent Texans slows down the narration, and it can be skipped without historical loss, but as a view of modern Texas it will be considered a priceless gem when historians look back at the present from a time years in the future when Texas is little different from New York.
The last part of the novel would be a good text for anyone trying to understand Texas today. It is purely fictional, but it highlights the two vital Texan issues of today and tomorrow: oil generated economic expansion and the integration of Mexican Americans into Texas society. What do and will those two factors mean to Texas? Michener gives an account not only of the issues but also of the people and emotions behind them with an elegance that would put a sociologist to shame.
Though lacking accurate local color, Texas leaves a lot to be desired. But as a novel it is above average. Read as pure novel, Texas is not bad entertainment, even if it is long. The reading goes quickly, and even if the outlook it produces is skewed, it does give non-Texans a thorough exposure to a remarkable, offbeat place and its equally remarkable and offbeat people. Anyone who can remember one tenth of the details will be a walking encyclopedia of things Texan from the number of types of cactus in Big Ben National Park to the unlikely origin of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Texas isn't a bad combination of Trivial Pursuit and Dallas, but it isn't a good way to get to know Texas either.
Kayla A. Escobedo
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