Great Books Countdown – Number Seven
Texas by James Michener
At three-thirty in the cold morning of Sunday, 6 March, Galba Fuqua reached over and nudged his friend Zave Campbell as they stood watch atop the long barracks: ‘I think they’re coming.’
Zave. . . peered into the darkness, seeing for himself that there was much movement among the trees to the west: ‘I think you’re right, Galb. . . It’s going to be a tough fight, that’s sure. If you see me showin’ any signs of cowardice. . .’
‘You could never be a coward, Mr. Cambell.’
‘No man ever knows. So if I start to show signs, you kick me in the ankle. You don’t have to say anything. Just kick me in the ankle and we’ll know what it means.’
The boy. . . said in a trembling voice: ‘I see shadows moving, Mr. Campbell.’ A hush, then: ‘Oh! They’re coming!’
Then, in the darkness of the night, seven Mexican buglers . . . started sounding one of the most powerful calls ever heard on the world’s battlefields. . . It was the ‘Deguello,’ an ancient Moorish plea to an enemy to surrender. . . Its meaning was stark and clear: If you do not surrender immediately, we shall behead you, everyone.
James Michener’s novel Texas was published in 1985 and I was given a copy for Christmas that year. It’s still on my shelf and I re-read it from time to time, all 1096 pages! While I like books of 200-300 pages, the really heavy volumes are especially good, since they whisk me to completely different eras and allow me to stay in them for a very long time. The stories in Texas start in the early 1500’s and run up to present day. (Or at least 1985.)
On the pages, I meet Cabeza de Vaca and Francisco de Coronado, explorers of the vast area to the north of Mexico called the land of many lands. Then come the Franciscans who travel north as missionaries to the Indians, build Mission San Jose and Mission San Antonio de Valero. Following them comes Stephen F. Austin and the settlers of his Austin Colony. And of course, Santa Anna, William Travis, Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston make their appearances. Beyond the War for Texas Independence, there are the German settlers, the establishment of the Texas Rangers, and the battles with the Commanches. By the latter part of the 19th century, there is the rise of the cotton industry, cattle ranching, and, of enormous importance to the state, the discovery of oil.
Each time I read this massive novel and arrive at page 1096, I feel as if I’ve lived through
every day of those centuries and know the people who populated them, both actual and fictional.
James Michener’s trademark was in writing gigantic sagas, usually centered on a particular location, covering the lives of dozens, and containing real history. This formula brought him great financial success.
His was a true rags-to-riches story, an orphan raised by a very poor Quaker mother in small town Pennsylvania. He said that he never knew the names of his biological parents, but his adopted mother must have done some things right. He managed to attend college and graduated summa cum laude. Quite impressive considering his hardscrabble childhood.
Michener’s first book was Tales of the South Pacific, published in 1947. That novel won him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction that same year. Also quite impressive.
He was a prolific writer, saying that he spent twelve to fifteen hours per day, at his typewriter for weeks, until a first draft was completed. Moreover, his stories required tons of research and he insisted that he did all of it himself. (However, I’ve also read that he employed a full team of researchers. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.)
Michener completed 25 novels, almost all of them over 1000 pages. Texas is number 16 in the line-up. In his lifetime, 75 million copies of his books were sold worldwide. Amazing.
Throughout, he remained a humble man. He said, The really great writers are
people like Emily Bronte who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination.
Texas by James Michener Five stars Highly recommend