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Archive for September, 2013

texasThis is a double review of The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel (Bloomsbury USA 2013) and The Son by Phillipp Meyer (Harper Collins 2013).

Texas has always been more a state of mind than a place: the Wild West of cowboys and Indians, lawmen and prostitutes, wildcatters and astronauts live more in novels and movies than in history books.

One popular romantic saga tells the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a white settler captured in 1836 as a child by Comanches and recaptured twenty-four years later by the settlers. The subsequent tale of her son Quanah Parker, last chief of the Comanche, completes the tale and further muddles the history.

Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend attempts to uncover as much of the true story of Cynthia Ann as possible from scanty records, isolated places, and local legends. The book also describes the use Alan LeMay made of the Parker story and other Western legends to craft his novel The Searchers published in 1954 and the subsequent use John Ford made of that novel to produce his film starring John Wayne. History in Hollywood is no more sacred than on the plains of Texas.

Frankel does a credible and readable job of establishing the setting in which the Parker family lived, the understandable hostility of the Comanche and other tribes to the settlers, and the details of this particular raid. Cynthia Ann’s life with the tribe and her acceptance of Comanche culture is more drudgery than romance but her recapture and “return” is presented sympathetically. Quanah’s success as “the white man’s favorite Indian,” from Texas to Washington, DC, is well documented by Frankel. Frankel also reconstructs the history of both the novel, the movie, and all the connected personalities–as large in myth as anything the Wild West produced.

Nothing in Frankel’s careful handling of the facts he found comes close to the melodrama Philipp Meyer has created in The Son. Every stock figure is in this saga of the McCullough family: the tyrannical father, the failed, sensitive son, and the granddaughter who inherits the old man’s drive without his male privileges. Here it is a son who is captured and transformed by the Indians, and the Mexicans who are killed without quam along with the Indians. The novel names several historical figures, from a fledging legislator named Johnson to a legendary rancher named Waggoner and an oil man named Hunt. Deciphering who the McCulloughs “really” are must be the #1 parlour game in Dallas.

The one character crucial to both these books is Texas–the physical reality of huge space, wide skies, and indifferent water. Topography defined where settlers farmed, Indiana roamed, and oil pooled. John Ford’s choice of Monument Valley, Utah, to play the part of the plains of Texas forever set the standard for what the Western should look life–and set in motion one part of the myth of Texas. Judy B. Bond

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