Harrigan tells Texas history as a best-selling novelist might do it, which means: make it fun to read, focus on people rather than places and dates, and don’t interrupt the narrative with footnotes.
Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas, Stephen Harrigan’s compelling new saga, is a big wonderful book. Big? Sure, 829 pages, plus notes and index that take it to 936 pages (University of Texas Press, $35 hardcover). Wonderful? Interesting story after story after story.
Harrigan tells Texas history as a best-selling novelist (The Gates of the Alamo) might do it, which means: make it fun to read, focus on people rather than places and dates, and don’t interrupt the narrative with footnotes (provide details at the back of the book).
You pick up a 900-page book that weighs more than you’ve been trying to lose for the last several years, and it’s kind of intimidating, like when you were a freshman in college and the professor assigned this “outside reading” that you dreaded opening.
And, then, you turn to the first page and it’s not about Texas history–at least not the way you’ve always thought about it–but it’s about “Big Tex” at the State Fair and how that is an icon for the Texas we know and love. And it just gets better and better.
Especially when it comes to the twentieth century, which tends to get short shrift in Texas history books. For example, T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star, popularly accepted as the modern comprehensive volume of Texas history, concedes only 100 of its 724 pages to Texas in the twentieth century, even in its revised edition in 2000. Harrigan devotes nearly 400 pages–about half the book–to the modern era, beginning with the Spindletop and Sour Lake oil booms and Eastland’s Old Rip horned toad to the birthplace or homestead of four US presidents to world wars, civil rights, football, Texas music, and of course the changing Texas political landscape.
Texas history is a lot more than the Alamo, San Jacinto, the Republic years, statehood and the Civil War, which of course Harrigan covers. Through the years, Texas history has often been white-washed–told from the prevailing Anglo point of view–and Harrigan offers a more balanced perspective without minimizing its heroic nature.
But the bottom line is not the fairness or the inclusiveness of the book, but its readability. It is fun to read. Harrigan knows how to tell a story that makes the reader look forward to the next one.
Big Wonderful Thing takes its name from a quote by artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who observed: “I couldn’t believe Texas was real … the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.”
Texas history is that kind of big wonderful thing, as Stephen Harrigan so engagingly reminds us.