Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (audio)

This audiobook, also part of my cross-country travels, was a birthday gift from my mom. Thanks, Mom!

Valentine is a powerful novel. It’s set in Odessa, Texas in 1976: a central West Texas oil town in a harsh environment filled with hard-edged, struggling people. The setting is definitely part of the appeal, as I know Odessa a little and its region a little better, and Elizabeth Wetmore’s striking writing about place I found very affecting and authentic. Mostly, this place comes across as rough, stark, unbeautiful; but a close read will reveal appreciation for the natural world and the people who find something to love in it. These characters are really well done, too. Chapters shift between the points of view of a number of them, with a firmer focus on three or four. All are women: men are only viewed through their eyes. As a woman, in a world of books historically over-focused on men, I appreciated this, too.

Let me get in a content warning before we go too much further: the event the book opens with, which is also the event that the entire narrative centers around, is a brutal and violent rape. It’s described in what I’d call moderate detail, which is plenty disturbing. Readers for whom this may present a problem should avoid the whole thing.

This rape and its aftermath affects all our characters in various ways. Even those who are initially unsympathetic become three-dimensional and complicated when they get their own chapters, in that way that I love: all people are complex, no one all good or bad, no perfect heroes or villains. I love a complication like nothing else. There is even a brief – failed – attempt to understand the perpetrator of the rape; that impulse and its failure both feel real and right to me.

Gloria, or Glory, Ramirez rightfully opens and closes the book. Fourteen years old, the US-born child of an undocumented Mexican immigrant mother, Glory’s life brings race and racism into the story. Valentine is centrally concerned with women’s lives and violence against women, but this layer is important and (of course) related. Then there is Mary Rose Whitehead, young mother of a young daughter, drawn into Glory’s life by circumstance. She rebels against many of the structures of the world around her, in ways that we applaud, but this is no fairy tale, so she will not necessarily triumph. Next comes Corrine Shepard, an older woman, recently widowed and handling her grief with booze, cigarettes and not giving two sh*ts what you think about any of it, which serves her well, to a point. I think of these three women as the core, although there are probably other interpretations – I haven’t counted chapters. Again, there are others who get less spotlight but make important contributions: I’m thinking of the bartender/babysitter/waitress we get to hear from near the very end.

This book covers so much. Race and racism and immigration, women’s lives and violence against women, economics patterns and the dire straits it puts all kinds of people in; the cultural and ecological milieu of a particular place, in a particular time, including what it looks like for an oil boom to hit a town like Odessa, which my friends who live in the region today tell me about: it sounds like it looks awfully the same after more than 40 years. Valentine‘s contents contain a lot of ugliness, brutality, violence, hate, tragedy: beware. But it’s also a beautifully rendered novel. And I appreciate its glimpses of beauty even in Odessa in 1976. It’s masterful, in other words. I’m very impressed, and I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Thanks again, Mom. Good pick.


Rating: 8 pistols in purses.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (audio)

I reviewed Heaven, My Home, which comes second in this series. My father reviewed the highly-regarded first novel Bluebird, Bluebird, and now I’m finally catching up.

Pops did a good job with the high points of this one, and I remember Heaven very fondly (I rated it 8 fingers). There’s no question in my mind that Locke is at her best in handling the complex, nuanced, contradictory nature of Texas history and relationships (particularly in regards to race, but of course there’s more there too). The social justice questions, with no easy resolutions, are Locke’s greatest strength. I found the murder mystery part of this novel less compelling. And I should acknowledge that this audiobook took me way too long to finish, so maybe I didn’t give it the fairest shot in terms of my slow reading (listening) pace. It did get a little draggy for me in the middle; I think the contemplative interiority of Ranger Mathews’ thought processes and turmoil was a mite slow for my personal tastes. Which is related to my bigger concern with the book: I had trouble believing in Mathews (as a fictional character who ‘rings true’), and I had trouble caring deeply about his problems, because he exasperated me.

I had trouble with some of his unprofessional behaviors. Not morally, but in terms of believability: does he really get away with it? The drinking on the job, and the blurred boundaries with the murder victim’s widow, and with Geneva, a powerful matriarch in the small town where he’s investigating a couple of murders. It often felt to me like he was amateur at his job – I expected him to have it together more, or at least be better about hiding his boozing. He sure does rush off half-cocked. And while the widow’s character also made me a little impatient, I bought that this is who she would be. Everyone else feels believable; it’s just Mathews. I’m familiar with the self-destructive, loner, problems-with-authority police detective in fiction – it’s a type, and one I rather specialize in. But this one feels like he’s not very high-functioning in his self-destruction, if that makes sense, and it just rang less true for me.

I do not require that I like a character in order to care what happens in a plot. But there has to be some stakes that I can engage in, and I struggled with that here. My problems with Mathews were distracting.

More compelling was the conflict Mathews feels about the law, nicely encapsulated in his two role models, twin uncles who respectively work(ed) as a lawyer and a Texas Ranger. He’s been drawn in both directions, and still feels the pull of the law, although most of all in the pressures applied by others.

It made him sad, the degree to which this kind of credit hogging mattered to Greg, that three years behind a desk had made him so desperate for the climb that a double homicide was seen as an opportunity first and a crime against nature second. But wasn’t Darren a little guilty of this, too?

…Maybe justice was messier than Darren realized when he’d first pinned a badge to his chest; it was no better or worse than a sieve, a cheap net, a catch-as-catch-can system that gave the illusion of righteousness when really the need for tidy resolution trumped sloppy uncertainty any day.

And,

He got it confused sometimes, on which side of the law he belonged, couldn’t always remember when it was safe for a black man to follow the rules.

Point very well taken. Although, Mathews can occasionally feel like a mouthpiece for these musings, rather than a fully human character.

I did really enjoy the local culture of Lark, Texas, the blues and the home cooking at Geneva’s. And the complex relationships, which Pops refers to in his review, were well drawn (and feel very real).

Narrator J. D. Jackson has a nice voice but sometimes plays this one with a hair more drama than I needed – again, a little distracting.

Some good stuff here, but a lot that bothered me, too. If I’d started here I wouldn’t have read Heaven, My Home, which I think is a superior book. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next for Ranger Darren Mathews.


Rating: 6 plates to go.

Sophomores by Sean Desmond

A boy begins to find himself as his parents face private battles of their own in this poignant and searching novel.

With Sophomores, Sean Desmond (Adam’s Fall) evokes late-1980s Dallas and its suburbs with eerie precision. A nuclear family–father, mother, son–and the worlds they navigate are full of anxieties, choices and possibilities. Spanning just one school year, this is a novel to get lost in.

In the fall of 1987, Dan Malone is a sophomore at the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas. He belongs to a tight foursome of boys who support each other at school and in their forays with the girls of Ursuline Academy. A bit tortured by his shyness in both areas, Dan’s interior workings are self-consciously earnest but endearingly real. “Dan felt a sudden awareness, a shimmering sense of discovery, that his journal, the newspaper, music, writing, reading, it was all connected with some hidden purpose… The hour when he would take part in the life of the world seemed to be drawing closer, and Dan wanted to think and write and listen to his heart and find out what it felt.”

Dan’s father, Pat, is an airline executive facing a serious industry downturn, culturally Irish Catholic and miserably estranged by his displacement (for work) from his native Bronx. He drinks too much and hides it poorly from his family. He struggles with a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Mother and wife Anne provides an essential counterpoint to Dan and Pat’s heavily male worlds. As a devout young woman, Anne had been a novice at Sisters of Charity, but she grew into a worldly, quietly feminist woman, inclined to be contrary in her internal monologues. Still a serious Catholic, Anne argues with the pastor both in her head and via anonymous phone calls.

These three perspectives triangulate to offer a rich, subtle story of family grief and love, teenaged seeking and adult angst. Desmond places crises in the classroom, where Dan strives for growth and recognition from a teacher “legendary for rigor and Socratic curveballs,” on equal footing with the murder trial where Anne serves as juror. Flashbacks to Anne’s and Pat’s pasts illuminate their characters and provide nuance and empathy. Events vary from the absurd (an ill-fated swim team trip) to the profane (one particularly colorful episode in Pat’s fall from grace), but throughout this narrative there is a sense that all of this is somehow serious, important, holy.

Sophomores is a sharp, crystalline look at a few months in the lives of a “regular” family. With a keen gaze, it captures a city in transition and a boy just coming of age. Dan and his parents will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.


This review originally ran in the January 8, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 sticks.

guest review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, from Pops

I reviewed the second book in the Ranger Darren Mathews series, Heaven, My Home. Pops is taking us back to the highly-decorated first in that series, Bluebird, Bluebird. He tells me it ends in a classic cliff-hanger.

This is a great, compelling mystery; by a Black author; about a Black Texas Ranger; about mostly Black characters; set in familiar East Texas locations; interwoven with Blues music (songs on Geneva’s jukebox are our playlist, including “Bluebird” by John Lee Hooker, about a man seeking a lost love ‘down south’, alluding to our plot); and with an epigraph from a Lightin’ Hopkins song, “Tom Moore Blues.”

And besides all that, she discreetly includes insightful social commentary about Black roots in the South, White privilege and racism, and the fraught legacy of biracial offspring from conflicted Black-White intimacy. E.g Ranger Darren Mathews’ family is rooted generations-deep in East Texas soil, stolid landowners now become proud and successful patriarchs of a clan determined not to be moved:

It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep, a Homeric shield against the petty jealousies and lethal injustices that so occupied white folks’ free time, their oppressive and intrusive gaze into every aspect of black life – from what you eat to who you marry to the clothes you wear to the music you play to the way you wear your hair to how you address them on the street. The Mathews family recognized it for what it was: a fevered obsession that didn’t really have anything to do with them, a preoccupation that weakened a man looking anywhere but at himself.

And: Darren contemplating how to explain to Randie, wife of murder victim Michael Wright, his desire to return home from Chicago.

[Randie:] ‘Michael always wanted to make excuses for these racists down here, had some kind of twisted nostalgia about growing up in the country that made him blind to all the rest of the bullshit down here.’ [Darren:] ‘It’s not making excuses. It’s knowing that I’m here, too. I’m Texas, too. They don’t get to decide what place this is. This is my home, too.’ …this thin slice of the state that had built both of them, Darren and Michael. The red dirt of East Texas ran in both their veins. Darren knew the power of home, knew what it meant to stand on the land where your forefathers had forged your future out of dirt, knew the power of what could be loved up by hand, how a harvest could change a fate. He knew what it felt like to stand on the back porch of his family homestead in Camilla and feel the breath of his ancestors in the trees, feel the power of gratitude in every stray breeze.

And: that troubled sexual intimacy, and even love, amidst entrenched racist culture.

Michael’s and Missy’s murders were race crimes, yes, but that was mainly because of the ways race defined so much about Lark, Texas, especially in terms of love, unexpected, and the family ties it created. [Darren] had forgotten that the most elemental instinct in human nature is not hate but love, the former inextricably linked to the latter. …[These white men’s] lives revolved around the black folks they claimed to hate but couldn’t leave alone.


Rating: 9 blues songs.

I’m not the least bit surprised that this sounds like an incisive novel, with complicated social issues in its heart. What I remember about book two is that the mystery plot is also worthwhile. I’d love to find time for more Attica Locke! Thanks, Pops.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan

Forces of nature and preternatural human empathy come together in an extraordinary novel about relationships, love and place.

Set against the true events of Memorial Day weekend 2015 in central Texas, Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here explores empathy, history, local lore, fantastical happenings and simple humanity. Amid catastrophic flooding, Nancy Wayson Dinan’s protagonist offers a compelling balance between the weird and the ordinary. Eighteen-year-old Boyd has always been unusually perceptive. Her best friend Isaac is the only one who never asked anything of her, in the unspoken way that people do. “Hurt children trailed Boyd… the forked stick of a dowser… tuned not to water, but to pain.”

It’s the fourth year of the drought, the beginning of summer, and Isaac is camped on the edge of the lake below Boyd’s house, panning for gold: “You can pay a semester of tuition at UT with a tiny sack of that gold dust.” After the first night’s rain, landscapes are rearranged, people scattered, and the rain still falls. Boyd can feel Isaac lost somewhere, “the copper fear in his mouth… the shivering of his chilled limbs.” Bridges out and all roads blocked, she sets out cross-country, on foot. “She had no doubt she could find Isaac; she was drawn to him like a magnetic pole, reading his distress like a Geiger counter.”

So begins a chain of events and searches: Isaac in mortal danger; Boyd following instinct alone into uncharted territories; her neighbor Carla, a retired hippie recluse from Austin, following her own instincts after Boyd. Boyd’s mother, Lucy Maud, accompanied by a motley crew of aging family members and Boyd’s father. Isaac’s father, also missing, gone treasure-hunting just as the rains began.

Dinan’s narrative shifts among these quests: Carla slipping through the mud in her yoga slides. Lucy Maud, alternately drawn to her estranged husband and annoyed by his ineptness. Isaac in one predicament after another. And Boyd, whose unlikely understanding has expanded until she must navigate both time and space, lost children and Texas history, wandering through the same sodden world where she looks for Isaac.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here is fabulous and engrossing, both faithful to the real-world details of central Texas and wildly imaginative, peopled with treasure hunters, prehistoric beasts, distracted professors and one improbable young woman facing a momentous decision. Dinan’s storytelling flows as forcefully as a flash flood in this spellbinding first novel in which a handsome young man, refreshingly, awaits rescue by a powerful woman.


This review originally ran in the April 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 glyptodonts.

movie: Hellfighters (1968)

Well this was a fairly silly but also awesome film. Extra points for vintage Houston footage, and a most interesting look at how they (used to) put out oil well fires. A little family drama and a bunch of feel-good, handshakin’ male friendship make for an all around warm-and-fuzzy (although seriously dated) John Wayne movie about firefighting and love.

IMDB calls this “disaster/action/adventure,” but it’s at least as much soap opera as it is any of that. Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is the best in the world at what he does: puts out oil well fires, “around the clock, around the world,” as says the slogan of The Buckman Company. He split with his ex-wife Madelyn because she can’t take the stress of his highly dangerous work, but they still love each other. When Chance is badly injured on the job, his assistant Greg fetches his daughter Tish to visit him in the hospital (against Chance’s wishes). Lickety-split, Greg and Tish are married, and the new generation gets their own chance (no pun intended) to navigate matrimony against a fiery backdrop. The final action takes place at a five-well fire in Venezuela, choppers chopping and bullets whining overhead, as both Tish and Madelyn show up to spectate.

I’d like to give some credit for these women being treated less as delicate flowers in need of protecting than I’d expected from 1968. It’s not modern, but it’s better than I’d have thought. Also, these people have phones in their cars and on airplanes! I understand 1968 less well than I thought I did, all-around.

It’s silly – I wonder how seriously the filmmakers took themselves – but pretty fun, too. The brawl between the Americans and some Australian firefighters in a gambling parlor in Malaya was fine slapstick. It’s got a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I fell asleep once. But I had good fun with it, in the end. Keep your expectations low and have a good time.


Rating: 7 delays with the nitro.

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

This scintillating murder mystery, set in Trump-era East Texas, with a black main cast and racial concerns, is gripping, gorgeously written and relevant.

Heaven, My Home is Attica Locke’s fifth novel, and the second starring Texas Ranger Darren Mathews (Bluebird Bluebird). In the time between Trump’s election and his inauguration, Darren has been assigned to look into the case of a missing child. In northeast Texas’s Hopetown, on Caddo Lake, Darren’s mission is not exactly to find the child, but to extract a confession–truthful or not–from a member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) for the murder of another ABT member. Darren’s life is a mess: he’s only just patched things up with his wife, and his mother is low-key blackmailing him in regards to the same murder.

He’s conflicted in several ways. A nine-year-old boy is missing, and Darren should save him, but this is a nine-year-old racist-in-training, and that training is going well so far. Darren knows justice should be absolute and blind, but the ABT man he’s being asked to frame was acquitted of another murder–of a black man–that he certainly did commit. Among the recurring questions of this novel: How far should forgiveness stretch?

Heaven, My Home is a rich, complex puzzle, with layers of characters: Darren’s not-very-maternal mother, the two uncles who raised him (a law professor and a Ranger, respectively), his lawyer wife, the Rangers he associates with and those he doesn’t, his white FBI buddy who prosecutes a black man for a hate crime. And, of course, the ABT and ABT hangers-on squatting in Hopetown, historically a freedmen’s community and the last enclave of a small band of Caddo Indians. This sounds complicated, and it is, but Locke’s absorbing prose, in a third person very close to Darren, keeps the reader well abreast of all the crisscrossing loyalties and betrayals intrinsic to these East Texas woods. This is a world where white families still remember which black families “stole” themselves away. Spouses cheat; close relatives feud; Darren is a deeply good man, unsure of how to right all of history’s wrongs.

There is a warmth and intimacy to the portrayal of Darren’s many internal struggles. This is a protagonist to love and sympathize with, although he is far from perfect. Locke’s expression of very real and contemporary anxieties is nearly painfully spot-on. Her East Texas is redolent of fried hushpuppies and catfish. For Darren, “it was not his East Texas. It was zydeco where he wanted blues. It was boudin where he wanted hot links.” It is a richly expressed place, filled with racial tensions and a fear of Trump’s coming regime.

Both a fascinating, smartly plotted mystery and a pertinent picture of the contemporary United States, Heaven, My Home is refreshing, dour and thrilling all at once. Readers will be anxious for more of Ranger Darren Mathews.


This review originally ran in the September 24, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 fingers.

movie: Paris, Texas (1984)

Wim Wenders directs this visually stunning, stately-paced film set in West Texas and Los Angeles. I’m really here for those visuals, including old shots of my hometown of Houston (shot around the time of my birth) and the Big Bend area that means so much to me. The plot is as stark as that West Texas scenery. We open with a man (Harry Dean Stanton) in a filthy sports coat and red baseball cap (which didn’t mean then what it often means now), stumbling through the desert. He turns out to be Travis Henderson, who disappeared four years earlier. After he collapses in a little shop in the desert, his brother Walt comes to rescue him, taking him back to L.A. and the household where Walt lives with his wife Anne and the eight-year-old boy who is Travis’s son but calls Walt & Anne Mom & Dad.

Slowly and sparely, Travis and the boy, Hunter, build a relationship of sorts. When Travis gets ready to go find Hunter’s mother Jane, Hunter wants to come along (of course). The two take off on a road trip back to Texas, where the reunion is somewhat dissatisfying for everyone, I think, including me the viewer.

I found the ending (which I won’t spoil too much) a little disappointing. It reminded me of an Abbey novel, when he handles gender relations most poorly. But a dear friend of mine, who is a huge Wenders fan, points out that it’s only honest to Travis’s character; and I guess that’s not wrong. I claim that I wanted something, not sappy, but more open-ended, perhaps… but then I realize I’m thinking of A Perfect World, which was sappy, so maybe I’m not being honest with myself. I can’t say the ending wasn’t realistic. Maybe I wanted something unrealistic.

At any rate, I was pleased with the movie overall. I said I came for the visuals, and these did not disappoint; I could watch several hours more of the same.

Travis & Walt, truck, desert & sky

freshly shaven Travis seeks recognition in mirror

The plot is just a frame to hold these images. Or, the West Texas desert is the central character, more than any of the human ones. Or, the plot is merely performative of the desert. Or, the point of the movie and its plot is simply to communicate that the desert dwarfs humanity and our petty hopes and goals.

I’d watch this again, maybe again and again, and keep seeing new images and metaphors. That big sky.


Rating: 7 car doors.

My Years with Townes Van Zandt: Music, Genius, and Rage by Harold F. Eggers Jr. with L. E. McCullough

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by its publicist in exchange for my honest review.


Over four months ago, a publicist wrote to me offering a copy of this memoir about Townes Van Zandt. Only in the last week or so when I finally got around to opening it did I realize the honor I’d received. I’m really grateful I got to read this one; and I’m honored that I was asked. Thanks, Jennifer.

Townes Van Zandt was a tortured genius and one of the finest troubadours this country has known. Harold F. Eggers Jr. was Townes’s road manager, business partner, and much more, for some twenty years. His memoir here (cowritten with L. E. McCullough, who has the writing experience) is very much about telling Townes’s story, but Eggers’s own life is well-represented, as well. I respect the format very much. The remarkable life of Townes Van Zandt clearly inspired the writing, and that’s the name that draws readers to the book. But Eggers has lived, as well, and I’m glad he’s present.

The book opens with the early years Eggers and Townes spent together, and then flashes back to a very brief telling of Eggers’s childhood and his service in Vietnam before he went to work for Townes (thanks to his big brother Kevin Eggers, who had previously worked with Townes and set up his veteran younger brother with a job to help him out). His tour in Vietnam plays a role in the rest of the story; Eggers credits the things he saw there with his ability to adapt to this wildness of sharing a hotel room with Townes, and believes his thrill-seeking and attraction to danger was about chasing something he’d seen in war. As a parallel, Townes had tried to enlist in the armed forces but been turned away because of the electroshock therapy he’d received as a teenager (also an enormous event in Townes’s life which would follow him forever). As Eggers tells it, Townes’s disappointment cast a long shadow.

There is everything here that a Townes fan wants: insider information, jokes and stories, and that enormous and overarching sadness that we feel in his songs. (Well, almost everything. We still don’t know much about Townes’s early life, pre-shock therapy, because he didn’t remember it, himself. This is a painful hole in the record, in my opinion. But Eggers couldn’t resolve it, and he’s right not to try. I sure wish someone had approached Townes’s parents while they were alive…) It’s a thorough telling of Townes’s final twenty years or so, as seen by Eggers, who does not claim to know what he wasn’t there to see; but the two men spent a lot of time together when on tour, often living as roommates even off the road. Eggers quotes Guy Clark: “Harold, how can you stay in the same room with Townes Van Zandt? You have been doign this for years, man. I’m his friend, too, but it would wear me out. How do you put up with it?” After years of reflection, Eggers is ready to say that growing up in a large family and later his military service gave him “the ability to routinize almost any sort of irrational behavior.” Eggers has his tricks: when Townes pitches fits in public and is on the brink of getting them arrested, Eggers tells him he needs to get onstage right now; this always works. He sees Townes sabotage recording sessions and huge live shows, and wishes the musicians in the studio only knew how to manage Townes the way he does.

As told here, the two have a symbiotic relationship. Eggers babysits and manages Townes, enabling the career he was able to have, however wracked and traumatized. But Townes helps Eggers mange his own demons, too. There’s a huge amount of love here. At the beginning and the end and in between, Eggers relates that Townes wanted this book to exist, and wanted to be sure it told the whole story, and not just the pretty stuff. “Tell the truth, no matter what… do not whitewash anything. Let all the ghosts and demons have their say.” Although Eggers’s love for Townes rings loud, I think he’s honored his friend’s wish, too.

This is one of the ways I want to contrast this book with another. Without Getting Killed or Caught, a recent biography of Guy Clark, was a rich source of information about Guy, one of Townes’s best friends. But it was too saccharine in its praise, didn’t let all the ghosts and demons have their say. Eggers did, and I appreciate him for that.

The style of My Years with Townes Van Zandt is straightforward, the writing style of a man with a story to tell, rather than that of a writer of craft and artistry. No complaints; Eggers’s voice comes through clearly, and I can feel his personality, and I hung on every word. But it’s a straight relating, and not a crafted piece of creative nonfiction. I’m a little surprised, since there was a ghostwriter involved, that it didn’t get a little more polish. But I’m not sorry.

One final detail before I tell you what an important read this is. Several appendices offer a thorough discography (and then some) and Eggers’s recording philosophy, for recording live shows (which have yielded such discography). The student of Townes’s music will be well-served: I know some of what I’m shopping for next.

For the Townes fan? An absolutely essential volume to keep and study. For the reader not so sure about Townes? An important look into the music industry of the 1970s-90s, at counterculture and American roots music, and at an artist you will soon become a fan of. Don’t miss this one.


Rating: for the sake of 8 songs.

I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell

It has been a long while since I read a book given me by Fil (three years!), but I remain grateful. I’ve been recently traveling in the Big Bend region (and you can check out my travels here), and so I packed this one along.

Hallie Stillwell was born in Waco, but when she was a year old the family moved to West Texas, and (aside from three years in New Mexico) she would live the rest of her life there. The towns she knows best and describes here – Alpine, Marathon, San Angelo, Ozona – are familiar to me from my visits to the region, and there is always a warm fuzzy feeling when I recognize the places I encounter in books.

Hallie moved to Presidio in 1916 at age 18 to teach school, leaving at 20 to marry a rancher, Roy, in the borderlands. She would be by his side until his death in 1948. She was born in 1897 and died in 1997, just shy of her 100th birthday: that fact alone would make her memoir significant – just think of all the changes she’d seen. As Hallie briefly catalogs in her preface, she lived through Pancho Villa’s revolution; the Spanish influenza epidemic; the 1929 crash and the Depression; two world wars; and countless technological advances. This is her memoir.

The title is explained: her father thought, when she headed to bordertown Presidio (where I ate lunch just the other day) as a teenager to work, that she was chasing wild geese. She told him that she’d gather them then. This is a phrase that recurs, and shows the early strength of character that would mark her life. This book has a style I recognize: the writing is uncomplicated, straightforward, not a work of fine art but of reportage. I did note some fun colloquialisms: “not worth a tinker’s dam,” “so upset that I could have fought a circle of saws.” But the point is the stories, not the writing.

I also noted Hallie’s habit to sum up her feelings. Often sections of text end with a remark about how contended and happy her family was; or, conversely, about how frustrating Roy could be, with his taciturn nature and resistance to change. However Roy irritates her, though, or however often she bemoans her own inexperience and ignorance of ranching operations, she always returns to the refrain: “I remember thinking… ‘I hope our lives will always be this way.'” “I felt that my life was complete… I often wondered what more I could want.” The overall effect is of a woman pleased with her lot, through the unbelievably hard times and Roy’s often obnoxious (though often funny) behavior. This kind of refrain could get tiresome, as Pollyanna as it is. But it felt authentic here. Perhaps Hallie is trying to convince herself as much as she is us, in looking back at a life that was hard but worthwhile. It feels real. It also feels in line with the untutored, amateur, honest memoir style.

I was a bit disappointed to see this book end with Roy’s death, as she lived almost another 50 years after that point. The “In Memoriam” epilogue to my memorial printing says, “Roy’s death in 1948 at the beginning of the longest drought of the century impelled Hallie to diversify. Having already mastered the roles of teacher, rancher, marksman, and mother, she became a justice of the peace, barber, journalist, author, storekeeper, RV innkeeper, and celebrity.” (Markswoman, please!) But none of these stories are told in this volume. I think that’s a loss.

But what is here is fine reading, and I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 head of cattle.
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