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07 June 2014

Philipp Meyer: The Son

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A disappointing epic saga of Texas
THE SON is a historical saga of epic proportions about American settlement of Texas. It had all the elements of being one of the better recent novels about the settlement of the American frontier, the Indians, the Mexicans, and cattle and oil wealth. Unfortunately it was a disappointment because it got lost in a flip-flop interleaved story of different characters at different times.

The part that interested me most was the fate of  Eli McCullough, a 13-year-old son of Texas frontier settlers, who is captured by the Comanche when they raid his family homestead, and rape, kill and dismember his mother and sister. Eli survives by assimilating himself into the Comanche world to be treated as a young brave by learning their skills in riding, hunting and warfare. He eventually goes out on raids on other tribes and their greatest enemies, the white settlers and the Texas rangers. While this seems to be a bit of a Stockholm syndrome reaction you get a feeling that all of these skills were natural to Eli who went through his eventful life fighting and dominating to the last.

Eventually Eli "escapes" back to his white surroundings and is forced into the harsh and dangerous life of the Texas Rangers. After surviving this experience (many didn't) he then fights for the South returning as "the Colonel" with a stolen fortune to found a huge ranch for his dynasty in South Texas. Nothing stands in his way, including justifying the massacre of a distinguished old Mexican family, the Garcias to gain their land. While cattle was king in the early days, later on Eli chased down mineral rights which made him an oil baron.

Eli considers his younger son Peter "a disappointment" because he doesn't inherit any of his father's dominant and brutal ways and sees the future world of Texas as a shared inheritance with the Mexicans. Peter is forever haunted by the slaughter of the Garcias who had who settled and developed the frontier before the Americans.  Jeannie McCullough, Eli's great-granddaughter, inherits some of Eli's drive and ruthlessness and presides over her oil and gas empire well into the twenty-first century.

While Meyer's descriptions of life with the Comanche were fascinating, I found his flip-flop storytelling between characters hard to follow, so much so that in some parts I really didn't know where the character fitted into the full picture.

An underlying theme of Meyer's book is that the history of Texas was a ruthless fight for survival of the fittest. I expected that the book would have left me, as someone who doesn't live in America, with an admiration for those who struggled to survive in the harsh and huge world of Texas, but it left me with a feeling of disappointment at the outcome on the various peoples who lived in that vast State over the last 150 years, and the immense impact of these struggles on an already fragile environment. It is clear to me that in the case of Texas the fittest were definitely not the best.

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