« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Brutal frontier

 

The Son
Philipp Meyer
592 pages, softcover:
$16.99.
Ecco, 2014.

"The land was hard on its sons, harder yet on the sons of other lands," writes

Philipp Meyer in The Son, a masterful, gripping portrait of America's Western expansion told through the lives of one Texas family.

The Son braids together the stories of three members of the McCullough family, who first came to Texas in 1832 when it was still part of Mexico. The future patriarch of the family is the charming and canny Eli McCullough, eventually known simply as "the Colonel," who was born in 1836, the year Texas became an independent republic.

When Eli is 13, Comanches kidnap him, killing his mother and siblings. Eli's toughness impresses his captors, who adopt him into the tribe. The Comanche sections are rigorously researched – the author drank buffalo blood and tanned hides – and vividly rendered, and they form the heart of the book. Although the Comanches are often shown to be merciless, Meyer reveals the grace and humanity of this horse-centered culture, and we mourn along with Eli when they dwindle.

Meyer weaves in excerpts from the diaries of Peter McCullough, Eli's son, uneasy with the ruthlessness that surrounds him. "How two men from the same stock might be so different," Peter muses, "my father likely reckons my mother snuck off for congress with some poet, scrivener, or other nearsighted sniveling half-man." In 1915, Peter's son, Glenn, is shot and wounded, and the perpetrator is believed to be a member of the Garcia family, the neighboring landowners. Back then, Texans were willing to kill Mexicans with little provocation, and the community's revenge is swift and disproportionate.

The third narrative strand that brings the epic to the present day is that of Jeanne Anne, who takes after her great-grandfather, Eli, in her toughness and practicality and becomes the proprietor of the McCullough land, cattle and oil holdings. She muses about the character of the new generation; Eli, she thinks, had "provided for all of them, and they'd become soft, they'd become people he never would have respected."

Meyer captures the inner lives of these characters while stripping the romance from the standard Western narrative. He portrays Texas as a place of Hobbesian mayhem, where life is often nasty, brutish and short, but even something as violent as a Comanche raid has a kind of unforgettable, bloody beauty.