by Philipp Meyer
” He was no better. His people had stolen the land from the Indians, and yet he did not think of that even for an instant – he thought only of the Texans who had stolen it from his people. And the Indians from whom his people had stolen the land had themselves stolen it from other Indians. “
” It had become clear to me that the lives of the rich and famous were not so different from the lives of the Comanches: you did what you pleased and answered to no one. ”
I’m always very intrigued when someone hands a book over and says – “You’ve got to read this; it’s a good one.”
It’s always a bit fascinating to me what people deem an “amazing read” because that’s a title I give out so sparingly. The study of what hold someone’s interest is as old as time; think of how many people make the big bucks to curate the advertisements you see on television, the Internet, store windows, and even as book jacket designs. The research that goes into what will catch someone’s eye and captivate them (whether via the short-term or with longevity) is a science. I’m always interested in why someone picked up a particular book. Was it the vivid front cover? The curious title? The well-known author? The summary on the back? And just as a sidebar, my husband doesn’t ever read the back summaries; he finds it akin to cheating or spoiling. I find it weird.
You can tell a lot about a person by how they choose to stock their bookshelves, or in some cases – how they don’t stock them. A few years ago when we moved into our house, I spent the weeks before the big haul across town shuffling laundry baskets full of books back and forth to cut down on the load. Come moving day I still ended up having two of the biggest plastic totes you can find full to the brim of paperbacks and hardcovers. I’ve always had a hard time parting with my books, and I have a great passion for settling completed serial works on a shelf after I’ve read them.The friend who helped me move vowed to never help me again; moving all those books wasn’t good for anyone’s back, even if the totes did have wheels. A year later, we helped a family member move from Houston up to Fort Worth and I was all geared up to help pack (and then organize in the new location, because I am a complete nerd and I love to organize) her books – but she didn’t own a single one. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d picked up a book since graduating college (oh, the absolute horror; what a sad and miserable life she must lead – ha, ha).
So when someone passes me a well-worn, dog-eared book that’s obviously been loved a whole lot (’cause you know, that spine didn’t get broken all on its own) I feel the need to tuck in myself (after inwardly cringing at the battering said book has taken on its voyage to get to me) and see what all the fuss is about. To see what made this particular person stick with this particular book.
The Son was a book loaned to me by my friend Kelli, and had been one of her book club’s picks a few months back. She mentioned that there was a television series based off of the book, starring Pierce Brosnan. I read the back of the book and was incredulous – 007 turned Texas cowboy? What? But . . .
. . . the subject matter was one that immediately grabbed my attention, and continued to haunt me as the book laid on my nightstand, gradually gathering dust while I worked through other reading and reviewing commitments. In short (very short, as this book boasts over 500 pages) : Texas. Oil. Cowboys. Indians. All wrapped up into one epic masterpiece portraying the hard lines men and women had to take as they paved the way for the future of the Southwest and created an industry by which we are very nearly all slaves to in some way or form.
As fate would have it, the book I’ve spent years outlining and planning to write is based around the same handful of concepts. It’s due to be an overlapping storyline with multiple narratives set across the span of many years, just like The Son. I’ve spent more than a decade building this story in my mind . . . part fictional memoir, part adventure story, part romance – all told from the perspective of several members of one Texas family and spanning several generations. As I’ve embarked upon my research on the beginnings of roughnecking and wildcatting in Texas, the conception and growth of my beloved city of Dallas, and the happenings of the frontier around the periphery of the cities that encompass my great state, I’ve realized the deep complexity of everything (and everyone) involved. Reading autobiographies, history books, magazine articles has been a constant state of enlightenment and learning – everyone has a different perspective of “how things were done” depending on what their station in life was. I’ve learned that cowboys were not as brave as one would think and cattle driving was about the least glamorous job one could have, the Texas Rangers (the veritable military force singular to the state of Texas, not the baseball team) did not hold always the honor that one assumes, and Indians were . . . well, there was a very calculated method to their presumed savagery. One thing most can agree upon is that Texas was a land on the brink of innovation and design that held the promise of real freedom, while also equally being a dangerous wasteland wrought with murder and illegal acquisition, presumed monsters-of-the-night and lethal neighbors.
Spanning a century of Texas lives, The Son connects the generations of the McCullough family and all of their dysfunctional currency into one basic act of humanity – acceptance. As each spotlighted member tries to solidify their place in the ever-changing land of black gold and ravaging Indians, crooked politicians and carefully branded cattle, they will learn who they are the hard way. The one thing that really threads this familial line together is their blood, and because each and every one of them is as different as they can be from one another, it is sometimes the only reason any shred of loyalty is garnered at all. And through it all readers are opened up to the panorama of historic Texas and its raw and virtually lawless beginnings.
Opening the story is young Eli McCullough, a 13-year old credited as having been the first male child born under the newly birthed Republic of Texas. The youngest son with an brother and sister ahead of him, Eli learned early on in life that he was different from his siblings. Where his older brother and somewhat snobbish sister revel in books of poetry or a patch of shade under a tree where they can share their secrets with one another, Eli has settled firmly into the station of protector whenever his father is away, traveling carefully down to the river to catch fish for the family meal or keeping the midnight watch with his gun loaded in hand. He is a simple boy and one meant for the outdoors and all it has to offer, but while he is content with the quiet life on the small family ranch on the Texas frontier, he cannot help but wonder what other adventures and dangers lie out on the seemingly endless flat plains or hidden in the murky shadows of the hillside.
One night Eli is awoken by a mixture of instinct and fear. Further investigation of his surroundings reveals savage Indians in the midst of stealing their horses, and when the intent of the intruders proves even more nefarious, he barricades himself in the house with his family. But no matter his resolve and bravery, the men get into the house – and before Eli’s eyes he watches his sister and mother raped and murdered, and he and his brother are carted off naked on horseback as prisoners of the Comanche tribe.
Moving further away from home and deeper into the heart of the red-skinned people, Eli transforms from a naive young teenager into a fully grown man over the course of the next few years. Viewed as a highly prized prisoner at first, his transition from white man to pseudo-Indian begins. Acceptance into the Comanche pack is not easy by far, but the situation is helped as Eli is kept firmly ensconced beneath the wing of the chief as his adopted son. Shedding his previous life as Eli and becoming an Indian in nearly everything except pure blood, the boy is reborn as Tiehteti, a name given to him by his Comanche people – a name that means simply “pathetic little white man.” He learns to shoot a bow an arrow from the back of a fast-moving horse, how to properly tan a hide, how to make love to a woman, and he earns his first scalp. But as war, famine, and disease begin to overtake the great Indian tribes across the lands of Texas and bordering states, the stolen boy-turned-savage is forced back into white society without any way to connect himself to the people whom he abandoned as a child. In an attempt to become a white man once again, Eli struggles with integration and with his stunted maturity he is unable to cultivate any viable sense of bonding with the people of his true heritage. He finds himself in trouble more often than not, all while longing for easy nights amongst the tribe he used to call family – people who he buried by hand once the plague overtook their lives. As nearly everyone from his past has been wiped out in one way or another, Eli has no other choice but to push forward and after using his time in the Rangers to gain knowledge and profitable connections, he decides to involve himself in the business of cattle and eventually, oil.
As Eli McCullough’s determination begins to build into a dynasty set for the ages, his son Peter struggles with his own personal demons and the constant battle of good versus evil that has settled over his life like a perpetual heavy raincloud. Nature versus nurture is at it’s most naked with Peter McCullough, and readers will enjoy his rather romantic way of viewing life. While his perspective is told from a series of journal entries and at times is quite sad, the complexity of the character is perhaps the most honest portrayal of human instinct. The shades of Peter include his desire to fit in with his blood family and his worry over his reputation as a landowner, but also his deep sensitivity for those less fortunate than him; he views himself as equal to almost every man and is at times embarrassed at how the only thing that sets them apart in the eye of the general public and law is the color of this skin. His father’s push for power is mostly very cut and dry, while for Peter there is much more emotion involved, a circumstance that further elicits a wedge into the relationship between father and son.
Peter sees people as human beings, where his father is only able to see others simply as either a road block or a pathway to his own design. Eli McCullough has no use for anyone who cannot further is own personal gain and agenda. The problems on the ranch are simple and their solutions even more so; anyone who may or may not be involved in stealing his cattle is nothing more than a problem that must be eliminated. Action now, and ask questions later . . . but don’t ever allow what you own to be threatened in any fashion or form. Growing up amongst Indians has threaded a strong cord of honor into Eli’s veins, but it is not something that his son can ever understand having lived his childhood without any want or need not met.
Haunted by the actions of his family and his fellow townspeople against a neighboring Mexican family, Peter does his best to keep it together while silently hating and alienating everyone around him. He views his father’s use of violence as an archaic and demeaning crutch, and Peter’s personal struggle with morality is only viewed as weakness by the men (and subsequent women) around him. He is not suited for life in the wild west, and it is predestined to be his downfall. Meanwhile, Eli cannot seem to forge any sort of connection with his oldest surviving son, so caught up as the old man is in his own machinations. His years with the Comanche tribe taught him how to survive, but it also subconsciously taught him that he (nor anything he owns) is ever safe. The two men battle for years to come, the consequences running down the line of their family like so much spilled blood.
The months turn into years and the years into decades, and the continued misuse of the Texas and Southwest lands goes unresolved. Cattle drives give way to oil derricks, with gallons of black gold being pumped into pastures and over blood-soaked land. Indian tribes are all but decimated; the few who remain are pushed onto reservations that are continually encroached upon by white settlers. Mexicans who have owned land for generations are murdered or robbed of their titles, paving the way for more ambitious and rich families like the McCulloughs. Eli put in the work to get the oil flowing, but it is his great-granddaughter Jeannie who will be instrumental in keeping it going. Thrust into a role that she always secretly coveted but has no idea how to manage, J.A. must figure out how to keep the ranch in true working order and without going bankrupt – and she must do it quickly. Backed by no man and with virtually no allies, the young girl slowly finds her footing in a world that has no real place for her as anything other than a doting wife or caring mother. Jeannie grew up challenging her brothers with roping calves and pushing her way to the front of the branding line, but as a teenager was shipped off to finishing school where it was felt she belonged. Life for her has never been easy; without a mother to guide her, Jeannie was often left to her own devices. But did she learn enough to take on the ranch?
She is the perfect mixture of Eli and Peter’s bloodline; careful yet cunning, insecure in private but always with a stoic and determined face pointed to the rest of Texas, Jeannie is a stubborn force of will pushing fervently against any wave of change, but there are some waves that even she cannot stand against. She must figure out how to bring the McCullough influence and business into the future, as well as mend the relationships that have been damaged along the way. As the centuries pass for the McCullough family, one thing remains the same – change is always just over the horizon. There are always battles to be fought and won. You must always defend what is yours, no matter if it’s against an Indian, a Mexican, an Arab oilman, or even your fellow Texan. And you must always be prepared for it all to fall apart, and for you to begin again.
It is difficult for any novel to rise to the heights of great classics such as Gone With the Wind or East of Eden, but family sagas wrought with treachery and adventure that include within their seams the timeless coming-of-age stories are something that readers can never seem to get enough of. The Son rises to the occasion of these classics, taking a great stab at being compared to the likes of John Jakes or the epic that is North and South, and hits its mark as the “next great Western.” Despite a handful of a too many windy tangents, I was impressed with the overall feel of the book; the author is not a Texan by birth or by childhood, but is instead a bit of an implant, having spent time at the University of Texas in his academic studies. Raised in the land of the Yankee, Meyer made his debut with American Rust, to much critical acclaim. But despite not being a Texan himself, Meyer seems to have done his research and as a result, the general feel of Texas is there. Dust kicked up from a Mustang horse, the tip of a weathered Stetson, the sound of a well-worn snakeskin boot sliding across a creaky hardwood floor, the smell of a homemade tortilla full of beans and brisket. The history is rich here in Texas, and while the legacy that has been left is strong and admirable, there are also ugly realities that Meyer didn’t hold back from bringing to the forefront. It’s not hard to see how he could find inspiration in the Lone Star State, and I applaud him for his honest portrayal.
Giving The Son 5 out of 5 stars, I recommend it to those interested in the history of Indian-white man relationships, the birth of oil, and those who enjoy a good family saga. The bounce back and forth between perspectives is smooth for the most part; I did find the latter quarter of the book to be a bit rushed, but as the pages were coming to nearly the 600 mark I can see how the author felt the need to wrap things up. I would have enjoyed the novel being split into two halves, as there was a gap in the history of Eli McCullough that was glaringly large. All in all, Meyer has succeeded in writing a beautiful story that many can enjoy, and I look forward to watching the television series to see if it lives up to the novel.