The action begins in 1849. Eli McCullough’s father has moved his family to a more remote area of Texas on the Pedernales River after the land grants of the original settlers in Matagorda were overturned by corruption and the connections of new arrivals. The Pedernales is a dangerous area, rife with Comanches.
Thirteen-year-old Eli has spent part of the day tracking and hunting game, but he is worried about the safety of his family with his father away. His older brother seems unconcerned, and his older sister and mother have spent the day drinking.
Late that night, the dogs awake the family as the cabin comes under attack by Comanches. Eli is ready to fight to the death, but his mother lets them in. Soon his mother and sister have been raped and murdered and he and his brother taken captive.
Eli’s story is exciting and will be revealed, but he obviously survives, because interleaved with his story we read the diaries of Eli’s son Peter over the course of several years. Eli’s experiences first with the Comanches and then with his efforts to protect his land southwest of San Antonio make him a ruthless man.
Peter is haunted by an incident that took place years ago, when a livestock theft resulted in the massacre of the McCullough’s neighbors, the Garcias, and the subsequent slaughter of almost every Mexican or Mexican-American in the area. Peter cannot get over the guilt and depression and sees it as a dark shadow in the corner of the room.
Closer to the present time, Jeanne McCullough, Peter’s 86-year-old granddaughter, has had some kind of accident. She is lying on the floor and thinks someone is in the room with her. As she lies there, she revisits scenes from her life. She knew her great-grandfather, Colonel Eli McCullough, but never her grandfather Peter, whom the family refers to as “The Great Disgrace.” As a young girl she agreed with the Colonel that her father Charles was a fool who mismanaged the ranch. After her father’s untimely death, she took over the ranch, eventually focusing on the oil business. Although the family has been made fabulously wealthy by her efforts, she has fought blatant sexism from her peers and sacrificed her family relationships to business.
The novel explores the tumultuous history of a hard family, moving back and forth in time and eventually revealing the secrets of this powerful dynasty. In doing so, it tells the history of Texas during the difficult times of the Republic of Texas, the vicissitudes of the Civil War, the viciousness of the range wars, and the fluctuations of the oil booms and busts. It is bold, sometimes violent, sprawling, and compelling reading.