A sweeping tale of 19th-century Texas.
In this historical novel, Mills (How Far Tomorrow, 2011) follows a large cast of characters from Georgia and Mississippi to Texas, where they find themselves caught in the revolution against Mexican rule and the short-lived Republic of Texas. Natchez, Mississippi, native Shelby Whitmire, who grows from a neglected youth to a veteran adventurer, is at the core of the narrative, surrounded by soldiers, settlers, innkeepers, and politicians as he travels from Mississippi to the Texas frontier. Navigating nearly fatal situations, he arrives in time for the battle of independence and eventually finds love and settles in his adopted homeland. In a demonstration of Mills’ solid grasp of time and place, fictional characters mix with historical figures, from famous notables like Santa Anna and Stephen Austin to little-known characters including Levi Weeks and Elizabeth Greenfield. Though the book excels in its depiction of heroism in history, it is less successful with subjects like slavery. While there is one prominent abolitionist character, most have few objections to the practice, including Shelby, who at one point equates his frustration over an unrequited crush to the expressions he observes at a slave auction: he “recognized, in the captive’s expression, his own mental state,” though eventually, the “men’s eyes met for a few moments, long enough for compassion and shame to stab at the individual with the freedom to walk away.” Native American characters enjoy a somewhat more nuanced portrayal, though many appear only to shoot arrows into Texan limbs. The writing, generally solid, does become awkward at times, particularly in the roughly two dozen places Mills identifies Shelby by his hometown instead of by name: “The man from Natchez gazed upon this landscape as if it were startlingly new, yet he sensed that the trees and rippling current looked much as they had in early autumn for the last two centuries.” Mills nevertheless keeps the plot moving, allowing the stories of ordinary Texans to outweigh the political rivalries and diplomatic rifts that fill the history books. She captures the effects of war on both soldiers and civilians, and the characters are plausible and engaging figures.
Texas history on a broad, complex scale.