A vigorous portrait of the fledgling Texas republic, set in 1839 and involving a large cast of gaudy, outsize characters.
Journalist and screenwriter/novelist Shrake (Blessed McGill, 1967; coauthor, with Harvey Penick, And If You Play Golf, You're My Friend, 1993) has done his research well. Like Larry McMurtry, he has employed astonishing details about the period, and his backdrops—of Comanche and Cherokee villages, and small, embattled Texas towns—are convincing, as are the motivations of his characters, many based on actual figures. Their actions, however, can sometimes approach melodrama. Sister and brother Cullasaja amd Romulus Swift, the offspring of a Cherokee woman and an Irish-American sea captain and merchant, head west because beautiful, determined Cullajasa wants to find an Indian utopia rumored to be in Texas, a village built by her mother's people. The handsome, accomplished Romulus, a physician, accompanies her. They quickly fall afoul of the sexual psychopath Henry Longfellow, a Texas politician who, when his rape of Cullasaja is frustrated, plans revenge. All three become entangled with Matthew Caldwell, a bright, lethal frontiersman who is a captain in the newly formed Texas Rangers, trying to preserve Texas from another Mexican invasion and the plots of a variety of shabby politicians attempting to loot or exploit the new nation. Looming in the background are the Comanches, who claim much of Texas as their hunting ground and view the white settlers with bafflement and disdain. Before the narrative is over, the village Cullajasa has been seeking is destroyed, a disastrous war with the Comanches is instigated, and Longfellow exacts his vengeance. Shrake's battle scenes have a gory reality, and his depiction of life on the frontier is vivid and compelling. But the novel is slowed somewhat by characters who can seem one-dimensional. And a subtext regarding a mystical quest is both jarring and cryptic.
Still, Shrake moves the plot along with zest. His portrait of a tiny nation, born in struggle, fighting to survive and to invent an identity, is often gripping. An unusual, ambitious work of historical fiction.