Review 1850: Simon the Fiddler

I read Enemy Women a while back, another Jiles novel set during the American Civil War. Simon the Fiddler is set towards the end of the war and in its aftermath.

Simon Boudlin is a master fiddler who has been playing in East Texas trying to dodge the conscription men. He has a dream of earning enough money to buy a piece of land and settle down with a wife. However, the conscription men get him, and he finds himself toward the end of the war on Brazos de Santiago in the Confederate Army.

The men are soon in a strange position, because the war is officially over but no one has disbanded them. Then for no apparent reason, the Union army attacks them, resulting in many casualties. Later, we learn the attack was made because Union General Web wanted to earn some glory in battle. The Confederates manage to gain back their island, and then they surrender.

Simon, along with several other musicians, is asked to play for the officers during a celebration of the end of the war. So, it’s a mixed group of Union and Confederate musicians who play. Then, Simon spots a girl. She’s the Irish governess for General Webb’s daughter. Her name is Doris, and Simon learns that the General doesn’t let any young men near her.

Simon teams up with three of the musicians to form a band. Their plan is to go to Galveston and make money. So, they steal a boat and navigate to the ruined city of Galveston—Simon; Patrick, a boy boudrain player; Damon, a penny whistle player; and Dorotheo, a guitarist. But all the time, Simon is planning to buy his land and marry Doris.

This is a wandering tale full of incident and the flavor of a largely untamed Texas. It is written sparely, with occasional lyrical descriptions of the beauty of the Texas landscape. I liked this novel a lot and plan to look for more by Jiles, particularly News of the World, which I have managed to miss.

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Review 1720: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

As a young adult in the late 60’s and 70’s, I did not have a high opinion of Lyndon Johnson. Although I was not political, like many people, I was against the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until I lived in Texas that I saw another side to Johnson, who was revered for, among other things, bringing electricity to rural Texas to ease the work of women.

Doris Kearns Goodwin worked in the White House in the late 60’s, and when Johnson asked her to help him write his memoirs, she declined because she also was against the war. However, Johnson was a master of persuasion, and she finally agreed. The memoir never got written, but Goodwin had unprecedented access to Johnson because of it and eventually used her notes to write this biography.

Goodwin is obviously interested in the pursuit and use of power, and Johnson is a perfect subject for that interest. She depicts a man who did not pursue power for itself but for the good he could do with it. I failed to mark them in the text, but many of his comments about the presidency and the use of power contrast starkly with the thinking of our last regime, which was fizzling out as I read this book.

Goodwin paints a picture of a complex man, brilliant but at times crude, organized, manipulative, a consummate negotiator, but a man with good intentions. It’s a pity that the war overshadowed and overwhelmed the other accomplishments of his presidency. Because of it, we forget that he put into process programs to help the needy and people of color. Medicare and the Voting Rights Act are down to him as well as other programs that were not handled as well because of his preoccupation with the war or that were gutted by Richard Nixon.

I did get a little bogged down in the chapter about the war, and it being a different time, today’s readers may have problems with how Johnson and others refer to minority groups. Still, I found this book really insightful and interesting, as it explores the reasons for some of his controversial decisions.

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Day 1017: The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer

Cover for Midnight AssassinI lived in Austin, Texas, for more than 20 years (not anymore, yay!), so I already know that Austin had a serial killer before Jack the Ripper. That didn’t make this book any less interesting, though.

Journalist Skip Hollandsworth was very surprised when he learned about it. In fact, he says he didn’t at first believe that, starting in 1884, Austin suffered a series of brutal attacks on women that ultimately culminated in several murders.

At that time, serving women usually lived in little shacks at the backs of their employers’ homes. Most of the victims were dragged out of these homes—other occupants either hit over the head or merely threatened—and then brutally attacked somewhere nearby. Most of the first victims were black, so of course (it being Texas and the 19th century), the authorities looked to African-American men for the perpetrator. Then they decided it was a gang of them. The idea of a serial killer seemed inconceivable to them.

Hollandsworth’s strength in this book is in bringing 1880’s Austin to life. He does a great job of setting the stage. I also enjoyed all of the photos of Austin from that time. This is an interesting story, one that many Austinites are unaware of. Of course, it doesn’t have a solution as the killer was never caught. We may never know who this murderer was or why he stopped. Hollandsworth follows up some interesting leads, though.

If you are interested in this topic, Steven Saylor has written a fictional account of it, using O. Henry as a character. His solution is a bit far-fetched and easy to predict, though.

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Day 995: The Promise

Cover for The PromiseSeveral years ago, I read Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, a nonfiction account of the terrible Galveston hurricane and flood of 1900. So, when one of the books on my Walter Scott Prize list turned out to be set in that time and place, I really wanted to read it. It did not disappoint.

Catherine Wainwright has behaved badly, and the result is a scandal that has resulted in her ostracism from her home town of Dayton, Ohio, and cost her livelihood as a performing pianist. In desperation, she writes to an old friend, Oscar Williams, who is a dairy farmer on Galveston Island. Although she has always considered herself his social superior, years ago he proposed to her. She did not accept him, but he is now a widower with a young son. He proposes again and she accepts. She has barely enough money to get to Galveston.

Nan Ogden is a much less sophisticated woman. She was the best friend of Bernadette, Oscar’s wife, and promised her she would take care of Andre, Oscar and Bernadette’s son. Truth be told, she has her own feelings for Oscar. Until Catherine appears, she has hopes that some day she might be Oscar’s wife. Instead, she finds herself a housekeeper for a woman who can barely boil an egg.

We don’t like Catherine at first, but she quickly grows on us as she develops more empathy for other people. As Catherine, Oscar, Andre, and Nan try to sort out their various feelings and relationships, the tension in the novel builds toward the storm. Then the novel becomes truly riveting.

The Promise is especially strong in its sense of place. I’ve been to Galveston when it was so hot I wondered how anyone could live there before air conditioning, let alone wearing corsets and tight clothes. Weisgarber really makes you feel the heat and stickiness.

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Day 916: The Unraveling of Mercy Louis

Cover for The Unraveling of Mercy LouisAt the beginning of this novel, it is 1999 and the last day of Mercy Louis’s sophomore year in high school. The novel is set in the downtrodden refinery city of Port Sabine, Texas. Mercy lives with Maw Maw, her grandmother, a woman who combines a background of Cajun superstition with strict fundamentalism. Maw Maw has visions and believes that the End of Days will arrive at the end of the year.

Mercy is focused on the thing she finds most important—basketball. She follows her coach’s rigid routines and diet, and she doesn’t drink or get involved with boys. Her best friend and teammate Annie isn’t so careful, though, about parties or boys.

Troubles for the town begin when an employee of a convenience store finds the body of a fetus in the dumpster. National attention falls on the town, fundamentalists demonstrate against the evils of baby killing, and attention soon turns on the town’s teenage girls. As one of them remarks, it’s as if suddenly it’s a sin to be a girl.

Mercy feels pressure from other sources, too. She has had a fit or a vision at church. She has received a letter from her mother, who left her when she was a baby. She also has a boyfriend for the first time, Travis, a boy from an artistic, liberal background. And she’s started having trouble controlling one of her arms.

The other major character is Illa Stark, a misfit girl who has only one friend, Lennox, who works with her on the school paper. She has a crush on Lennox, but he is dating the formidable Annie. Illa also has a fascination with Mercy, the star of the girls’ basketball team.

Illa’s mother is wheelchair bound after a huge refinery accident several years ago. Now she hardly ever goes out. Illa doesn’t get out much either except as manager of the basketball team and in pursuit of her interest in photography.

Although this novel is a coming of age story, it is more about the pressures of religious fundamentalism on girls. Mercy tries to cope with the natural desires of teenage years to date and have fun, both of which she has been brought up to believe are evil.

I did care about these characters, but I felt that in some ways, although the novel doesn’t tie up all the threads, it comes to some easy solutions of the characters’ problems. I also found the writing—which is overloaded with similes and metaphors—to be irritating at times. So, I had a mixed reaction to this novel.

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Day 729: The Great Texas Wind Rush

Cover for The Great Texas Wind RushThe Great Texas Wind Rush is a history of the wind energy business written by Kate Galbraith and Asher Price, a couple of reporters. It begins with the building of wind turbines to pump water and then covers a few pioneers who tried to use turbines to produce electricity, with mixed results.

Finally, it follows the various attempts to do this as a business and the legislation that made it possible to make wind farming a serious business. These efforts finally culminated in the 2000’s with the establishment of many successful wind farms across Texas.

I have nothing against wind power. In fact, I am for green energy. But the book at times seems to be biased both for Texas and for wind power. I live in Texas, so I am used to the ridiculous pro-Texas bias that creeps into everything, but I felt that the cons of wind power were glossed over. The problems of migratory birds are mentioned, for example, several times, but there are no facts or figures even estimating the number of birds killed. This is disturbing, especially in discussions about wind farms off the coast, where there are many bird sanctuaries, including for the whooping crane, which already almost went extinct. And the admiring tone the book occasionally takes is not good journalism.

Books about business do not fall within my interests, and the only reason I read this one was because it was chosen for my book club. At first I found it more interesting than I expected, but eventually it seemed to become just one story after another about one company after another. I kept falling asleep. Unless you are really interested in wind power or business history, the book, although clearly written for a general audience, has limited appeal.

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Day 706: The Devil’s Backbone

Cover for The Devil's BackboneThe Devil’s Backbone is a western adventure tale related in an unsophisticated vernacular style in both first person and third person. It is an unusual novel but reminds me most of, perhaps, True Grit or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The third person narrator is barely there but relates the first person story his father told him. The book is illustrated by Jack Unruh.

Papa, as the third-person narrator calls him, is a young boy growing up in the Texas Hill Country when his father Karl kills a horse after a dispute about it with his wife Amanda. Amanda saddles up her horse Precious with the concho-decorated saddle her father gave her and leaves. After Karl has gone off for a few days and returned, a neighbor, Miz Choat, arrives to tell Karl that she has promised Amanda to send the boys to school, so she takes Papa and his older brother Herman back with her. But after Herman has attended school awhile, he takes off.

Papa enjoys his time with the Choats, but after a few months his father arrives to take him back. At home he has installed another woman, Miss Gusa, who is pregnant.

Papa has clearly been brought home as a cheap source of labor. Eventually, Karl’s brutality makes Papa decide to leave and look for his Mama. On his journey he encounters outlaws, a dying Indian, a prematurely born baby, a family of Mexican migrant workers, and several loyal friends, including the cowboy Calley Pearsall.

I enjoyed this tale. At first, I thought it might become a series of tall tales, but nothing happens in it that seems wildly exaggerated. However, it does have the flavor of a folk tale. The only thing I found a little irritating was the double narration. We learn nothing at all about the narrator, so I don’t really see the purpose of that approach, which leads occasionally to such confusing constructions as “I said, Papa said.”

Although this novel may sound like children’s fiction, I don’t think I would recommend it for younger children because of some of the events. Older children would probably like it, as it has lots of adventure. Some of the subject matter may be inappropriate, however, as there are events such as murders and death in childbirth, so use your discretion. This book was a choice of my book club, all adults, and we all enjoyed it.

I have been on the Devil’s Backbone (pictured on the cover). These days it is a narrow two-lane highway across a ridge with spectacular views on each side. I heard it had been widened, but to think it was once so narrow is amazing.

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Day 436: The Son

Cover for The SonThe Son is the saga of a powerful Texas clan, the McCulloughs, from the points of view of three different generations of the family.

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.

Day 310: The Killer Inside Me

Cover for The Killer Inside MeJim Thompson’s classic noir thriller The Killer Inside Me was one I had never read, so I picked it up out of curiosity. Normally, I am not drawn to classic noir, even though I like a crime novel that is dark. This brief novel easily kept my attention, though.

Lou Ford is a deputy sheriff in a small Texas town. He projects the image of a jovial good guy, maybe even a little stupid, who continually spouts clichés. But he has actually been hiding his sociopathic tendencies for years.

Ford begins a sadomasochistic relationship with Joyce Lakeland, a prostitute. He sees a way to use his relationship with Joyce to get revenge for his brother’s death. As a teenager Ford sexually abused a little girl, and his foster brother Mike took the blame. After he got out of jail, Mike died in a construction accident, and Ford has blamed the local owner of the construction company for Mike’s death.

Ford and Joyce begin blackmailing the owner of the construction company in return for keeping his son’s affair with Joyce secret. Then Ford sees a way to take it all one step further. Of course, things don’t always go as planned.

As in reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, a large part of the fascination of this disturbing book lies in wondering how Ford is going to get out of one fix after another. Thompson’s writing is deft and tight. You will be glued to the page, even if you don’t like noir.