This is going to be fun. Well, I know it is going to be fun for me, because I am going to rant. Not only do I get to comment on a book I thought was really good (though not without its flaws), I get to pointedly disagree with the review published in The Economist magazine (August 10, 2013). I hope this is fun for you as well.
Philipp Meyer's basic thesis is voiced by the paterfamilia to his son saying, "no land was ever acquired honestly in the history of the earth." Meyer goes on to show us that thesis through 5 generations of a Texas family starting in the 1830s and continuing through to the present. Cycling through the stories of Eli McCullough; Eli's son, Pete; and Peter's granddaughter, Jeanne Anne, Meyer tells the story of the American settlement of Texas - from pushing out the Mexicans, killing off the Comanches, domesticating the wild Spanish cattle, discovering oil, and living through the boom-bust cycles of big oil - is told in all its brutal glory.
Eli McCullough ("The Colonel"), is just a boy when he is abducted by the Comanches in a raid on the family homestead - his mother, sister, and eventually his older brother are brutally abused and killed, but Eli is the right age and has the right amount of defiant attitude and will to live and is kept as a slave. Eli eventually becomes a full-fledged member of the tribe and lives 3 years as a Comanche before he is "traded" back to the whites for supplies that will help keep the small, sick (by that time) group of Comanches alive. Upon his return to "civilization" Eli manages to drink, steal, and fornicate his way into a choice between being hanged or joining the Texas Rangers (One Riot, One Ranger) and parlays his Ranger experience into land and eventually a lot of land and a lot of power.
Peter McCullough is the more thoughtful, more moral, more liberal, and more feeling son, but is The Colonel's equal in his commitment to the land - albeit a narrower commitment to being a cattle rancher. Peter is dismayed, disgusted, and eventually driven away from the land by the brutality employed to acquire it and keep it.
Jeanne Anne McCullough comes to her position as family leader through the unfortunate and early demise of her brothers, and fights her own battles as a woman in the manly man's world of oil wildcatters and the international oil cartel dominated eventually by the Arabs.
And here is where The Economist and I part ways. In fact, The Economist must have read a different book than I did. The Economist accuses Meyer of insisting that violence and theft are the basic building blocks of nature and The Economist violently (pun intended) objects to that view of history. It is not clear to me exactly what The Economist is all bothered about here -- not sure whether they do not like what Meyer is showing the history to be or if they simply do not like the history. I viewed Meyer's portrayal of violence and theft as part of the argument of history, and did not see that portrayal as over the top but, rather, as a pretty fair and accurate perspective on the actual course of events.
Interestingly and independently, with my Kindle, I highlighted the exact same passage that The Economist review quotes - but I highlighted the whole section, not just the one sentence The Economist plucked out of context. I viewed this passage as an incredibly incisive insight, rather than describing a "cruel cycle of seizure and revenge" as the Economist terms it. The quote in its long version (the purposely abbreviated sentence The Economist quoted is in bold italics) goes like this:
"Toshaway [Eli's Comanche father] was right: you had to love others more than you loved your own body, otherwise you would be destroyed, whether from the inside or out, it didn't matter. You could butcher and pillage but as long as you did it for people you loved, it never mattered. You did not see any Comanches with the long stare - there was nothing they did that was not to protect their friends, their families, or their band. The war sickness was a disease of the white man, who fought in armies far from his home, for men he didn't know, and there is a myth about the West, that it was founded and ruled by loners, while the truth is just the opposite; the loner is the mental weakling, and was seen as such and treated with suspicion. You did not live long without someone watching your back and there were few people, white or Indian, who did not see stranger in the night and invite him to join the campfire."
I find The Economist reviewer's selectivity to be disingenuous - edited to make a point that the more complete passage actually refutes - QED. I submit that this reviewer decided he didn't like the reality of history - that progress is proceeded by violence - and thus the reviewer subjected the entire book to a polemic that is totally unjustified by the prose.
Moreover, The reviewer states that "...apart from Jeannie (sic) the characters are largely lifeless, either macho psychopaths or effete intellectuals, most of them operate like wooden actors in a big book of ideas". . Wrong! Or should I say, I heartily disagree? I found the Eli chapters, particularly the chapters describing his life with the Comanches and his return to civilization among the most vibrant, expressive, and interesting in the book.
I found Peter's character - demonstrating the awful dichotomy of loving the land but hating the actions required to hold it and expand it to be quite well done, yet The Economist says of Peter that he is "sanctimonious and weak". Sanctimonious, perhaps a bit. Weak? A man who gives up what he has held as most important for his entire life (up to this point) for the woman he has come to love and who is treated badly by his family is weak? I think not. Truth be told, I found the Jeanne Anne chapters to be the weakest link. For me, perhaps because those portions were the most recent in the timeline. I did find the dilemmas Jeanne Anne faced and the problems she had to overcome somewhat less towering than Eli's and Peter's. In the spirit of full disclosure, my attitude may be heavily influenced by my gender and, if so, I apologize for my sexism.
Finally (on The Economist is dead wrong topic, that is), The Economist really shows its true nature and purpose when it states that "in presenting the brutality of white settlers and Comanche warriors as identical, he [Meyer] appears to condone the genocide of the native Americans as just another example of history's unbroken string of conquests, inevitable and therefore guilt-free." What total poppycock! (Do I get points for substituting for the expletives I was actually thinking?)
The "Comanche" chapters are reminiscent of Arthur Berger's "Little Big Man", which was marvelous (as is Meyer) in presenting Native American culture as every bit the equal in morality, attitude, and action as well as folly, greed and humanity as the white man. Once again, I think The Economist misses the point. Meyer places Eli's sojourn among the Comanche as every bit as "good" (or "bad") as his life in the Rangers and as a white rancher. I see the presentation of this "equality" as a positive recognition that white culture has no claim of superiority, not as any excuse for behavior.
The Economist review conveniently denies the history and then moralizes about the history he/she would like to have seen. Once again, here is what Meyer actually wrote,
"On the ranch they found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom, and while Jesus was walking to Calvary the Mogollon people were bashing each other with stone axes. When the Spanish came, there were Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho, and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudos....but whether they had wiped out the Mongollons or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apaches. Who in turn were wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanches. Who were finally wiped out by the Americans. The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and had themselves been destroyed by the Muslims. Who were destroyed by the Spanish and the Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story - the blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were."
The Economist reviewer can moralize and revise history all he/she cares to, but that does not deny the history. That Meyer presents the displacement of the Indian as a natural progression of white encroachment seems to upset The Economist, who is conveniently ignoring that most of the destruction of Native tribes (both North and Central American) was due to disease (I recommend they read Jared Diamond's seminal work, "Guns, Germs, and Steel") and that the white man's genocide of the Native Americans was, unfortunately, certainly not the first nor the last incidence of this kind of abhorent reality. Meyer does not excuse what we did to Native Americans, but neither does he deny that it was a natural progression that started the day Columbus set foot on Hispaniola. I think The Economist is playing fast and loose with reality and firing for effect only. Acknowledging that the pattern of history is the displacement of peoples and civilization is not condoning genocide or making its pursuit guilt-free. If guilt-free means we haven't yet given the land back, well, that's another story.
I found this to be a powerful, engaging story with a powerful impact. I tend (as you can tell, dear reader) to believe in Meyer's basic themes as quoted above. Read this and judge for yourself.
PS. The Economist does not name their reviewers, but I would be unsurprised to find out that this particular reviewer has a point of view on American History that I would see as revisionist and subjecting history to today's political correctness. If I was a cruel cynic I might point out that The Economist is a British publication and that their desire to put the US history to rights by condemning what the early Americans did to the Native population belies what the British did to the Irish throught history (genocide, indeed), the Indians, the Australian Aboriginies, the West Africans, not to mention the Bushman and other native South African tribes. Moreover, once again, the actual history disproves The Economist's point.