THE STRANGE CAREER OF WILLIAM ELLIS

THE TEXAS SLAVE WHO BECAME A MEXICAN MILLIONAIRE

An amazing tale that is indeed “almost too strange to be true.”

A remarkable historical detective story that unearths the life and times of a “trickster” African-American who was able to “pass,” and strive spectacularly, as Latino.

During a time of deep racial anxiety in the United States—just after the Civil War and through the 1920s—the “color bar” was deeply pronounced and enforced in all aspects of society, from travel to public establishments to housing to marriage. Jacoby (History/Columbia Univ.; Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History, 2008, etc.) delves minutely into this unsettling history of racial relations through the life of nimble businessman William Henry Ellis, aka Guillermo Enrique Eliseo—born in 1864 to biracial slaves in Victoria, Texas—whose olive skin and facility with Spanish allowed him to move freely between the porous U.S.–Mexico border and reinvent himself in an extraordinary manner. Ellis’ ability to pass as Mexican or Cuban (or even Hawaiian) while on business above and below the border is only one facet of this fascinating story. He rode in first-class cars, stayed at length in the British-owned Hotel Gillow in Mexico City, built a trading firm on Wall Street, and married a white woman. Ellis was surely a kind of confidence man, but he was also a crusader for his race and became embroiled in Republican politics in the 1880s, cooking up a scheme to recolonize African-American tenant farmers from the cotton-picking South to a huge tract of land in northern Mexico during a time of profound labor shortages in Mexico, where racial relations were far less fraught than in America. Jacoby imparts important, unknown aspects of Mexican-American history and does a stellar feat of research in weaving together this fragmented life as just one incredible example of the American experience in all its complexity and ingenuity.

An amazing tale that is indeed “almost too strange to be true.”

Pub Date: June 14, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-23925-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2016

TOMBSTONE

THE EARP BROTHERS, DOC HOLLIDAY, AND THE VENDETTA RIDE FROM HELL

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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