The Son

The Son“It was prophesied I would live to see one hundred and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it.” — The Son, Philipp Meyer

Seems I am still wandering around the west this year in my reading.  The Son is a story of the colonization of Texas and the transformation of the landscape and its people over the span of about a 100 years–roughly 1850 to 1960. It’s told from the points of view of three different members of one family, the McCulloughs: Eli the patriarch in the mid to late 1800s, his son Peter in the early part of the 20th century, and his great granddaughter Jeanne Anne in the middle part of the 20th century. Each character narrates his/her life and the story of the McCullough family in rotating chapters.

One of the most compelling stories is Eli’s. He story begins with his capture from his family by the Comanche on his family’s homestead on the west Texas plains in the 1850s and ends with his death as a very old man on his enormous Texas landholdings in the early 20th century. Eli’s character is irrevocably shaped by his capture and captivity with the Comanche. He captivity transforms him from a white child, albeit a pretty savvy one, into a respected Comanche warrior, learning to hunt, shoot, raid, fight, murder, track, ride, and live on the land as a member of the tribe. The Comanche lifestyle and mentality never leaves him, even after he returns to white culture. He becomes neither white nor native, or perhaps, both white and native, and really is a law and culture unto himself.  As an Indian, he kills and disenfranchises whites, Mexicans, and other natives to get what he wants to survive and  thrive. And as a white, he kills white, Indians, and Mexicans to do the same and protect his family and name. One of my favorite passages that summarizes how Eli looked at life, his loyalties, and his actions:

Toshaway had been right: you had to love others more than you loved your own body, otherwise you would be destroyed, whether from the inside or out, it didn’t matter. You could butcher and pillage but as long as you did it for people you loved, it never mattered. 

There were many real life captives from this time period, a few of whom left narratives about their experiences and supposedly provide some of the best ethnography on the Comanche and other tribes during this period that exist.  Every interview/review I’ve read about Meyer noted that he did incredible research to write this book—read tons of books, learned to track and hunt with a bow and arrow, and even butchered a buffalo and drank its blood.  So it’s not surprising that much of these Eli chapters read like ethnographic studies. Chapter 16 is just a couple of pages and is, except one sentence in Eli’s voice, a description of the uses and butchering of buffalo.  This chapter could have come out of a non-fiction book on plains Indians. Eli was definitely modeled from historical captive accounts, and even specific events in the story were lifted directly from captive narratives like those of Herman Lehmann. I was completely fascinated by these accounts when I first stumbled on them a few years ago. I am still so amazed that white people were crazy/stupid/entitled enough to move their families into areas of Texas that were known to be part of or near Comancheria.  Most whites understood very little about the Comanche and their worldview, but they did know that rape, murder, and captivity were certainties should they ever be raided by them. Yet it happened over and over.  I was really entertained by how Meyer used all his research, but felt that sometimes it read too much like a history/anthropology lesson (chapter 16 for example).

The narrative by Eli’s son, Peter, gives quite  different impression of Texas and its mythmaking. My notes say “Peter is a pussy,” and he certainly is in comparison to Eli. Peter detests and is tormented by the way his father brutally murders a neighboring Mexican family and boldly usurps their land to expand his holdings. I was continuously puzzled as I read—and still am–as to why I found Peter to be such a weak and unsympathetic character when he champions ideas that I are closer to my personal ones.  He just thought racism and murder were wrong–what’s so wimpy about that? Many reviewers found his story the weakest, but I only found him the weakest personality. His story is actually key to the entire novel’s  resolution and the title.

Jeanne’s story reminded me so much of the movie Giant–I just kept seeing her lying on the floor of Riata with the giant oil painting looming nearby. I really don’t think this is a coincidence.  Jeanne is Eli’s great granddaughter through and through. While she doesn’t murder people, she does make choices that particularly for a woman of her generation are downright unconventional. She is really good at making money and builds the McCullough ranch into an oil empire. She struggles to balance work and motherhood, and what her children don’t see, as Eli’s didn’t, is that all her choices to put work first are in the interest of preserving and caring for the McCullough family name and its members. If Liz Taylor had run Riata and gone more for the oil than cattle, you’d have Jeanne.

This novel was a bit hard for me to evaluate my reaction to it. I had a lot of expectations going in because of the number of reviews I’d read (always dangerous). Also, my previous reading of captive narratives made it hard for me to just get sucked into Eli’s story as simply a rollicking–if brutal– good story (which it most definitely is). I don’t begrudge Meyer’s use of captive tales, imagery from movies, etc, but it was distracting and prevented me from being swept away as a really original story might have (or at least one that was more original to me). Still, this is a very interesting novel and a great way to get a taste of some historic captive accounts, learn a bit, possibly, about how the Comanche lived at that time, and consider more deeply again the impact of white migration into the plains and the changes that were wrought in a mere 100 years on people and the land.


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