Two books emerge from Texas this month, one a history, the other historical fiction. Both paint a portrait of near-mythical Texas heroes, but in decidedly human tones.
The Men Who Wear the Star, Charles M. Robinson's newest work, combines Texas history and a biography of the Texas Rangers, the modern-day state police force that evolved from frontiersmen and Indian fighters. Robinson is a Texas history professor whose biography of General Ranald S. Mackenzie, Bad Hand, won the Fehrenbach Award from the Texas Historical Commission. In this new study of the Rangers, he provides extensive bibliography, footnotes, maps, and an index in addition to his fast-paced narrative. Admirers of the Texas fiction of such notables as Larry McMurtry and Elmer Kelton will recognize the source of many of their Ranger stories in this lively chronicle.
The Texas Rangers first appeared in the 1820s, marshaled as a local volunteer militia to protect settlers from Indian attacks and defend the state's ever-changing borders. The independence movement and American Manifest Destiny soon prompted the Rangers to defend southern territorial rights against Mexico. The conflict with Mexico culminated in the Battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto, both of which featured Ranging Companies. Rangers were also active for the Republic of Texas, fighting alongside Zachary Taylor's U.S. Army forces in the Mexican War. They fought with a fervor so undisciplined that Taylor remarked that he wanted the Texans always at his side in battle, but at no other time.
The Rangers' frontier duties continued throughout the Civil War and into the 1870s, but the migration of the last Indian tribes to reservations left the companies to evolve into professional lawmen. This period continued until the 1930s, when the force became the official State Police. Today the Rangers perform crime scene investigations and assist local law enforcement agencies. Famous incidents abound in their history, from Ranger Frank Hamer's planning the final ambush of Bonnie and Clyde, to Ranger Captain William McDonald's statement, possibly apocryphal, that one riot requires only one Ranger. Such bravado contributes to the group's status as heroes of the American West, a reputation the modern day Rangers zealously protect. They have said that the black hat worn by Chuck Norris in his current television program Walker, Texas Ranger offends them. As any Texas schoolboy knows, the good guys always wear white hats.
Stephen Harrigan's The Gates of the Alamo is an excellent novel about the siege of the Alamo, the most sacred shrine of Texas's fight for independence from Mexico. History books have told this story many times, and a big budget movie from the '60s glorified its heroes, but Harrigan's retelling is fresh and vivid. The story this time comes from the viewpoint of both Texans and Mexicans, with remarkable characters created to carry the action. These fictional characters blend with their historical counterparts to add intimacy and passion to the narrative.
There are three central characters in the novel. Edmund McGowan, an American botanist under commission to the Mexican government to produce a botanical record of the Texas territory, begins the narrative quite willing to continue living under their rule. Mary Mott is an Irish immigrant widow who operates a boarding house near the Gulf Coast and with whom McGowan falls in love. Her teenage son Terrell, whose first sexual experience ends miserably, flees into the volunteer forces of Jim Bowie and eventually to the Alamo.
In addition, three Mexicans are central to the story. Santa Anna, the Mexican General and President in absentia, is a man of violent moods and captivating kindness; Telesforo Villasenor, the president's personal cartographer, is a young officer whose high ideals crash into battlefield reality; Blas Montoya is the sergeant of a Mexican rifle company drawing the task of charging the Alamo's most imposing fortifications.
Stephen Harrigan is a longtime writer for Texas Monthly and the author of two previous novels as well as screenplays and non-fiction works. The Gates of the Alamo has consumed the past eight years of his life. A gripping story, told with epic sweep, it humanizes the glorious fight for Texan independence.
David Sinclair is a former English Literature teacher and reviewer in Wichita Falls, Texas.