The Son

by Philipp Meyer


Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach


The Son explores the history of Texas through the viewpoints of several generations of a fictional Texas ranching family. Eli McCullough's father arrived in 1832, one of the earliest American settlers in Texas, then part of Mexico. During a brutal raid on the family's farm, twelve-year-old Eli is kidnapped by Comanches. Meanwhile, in the Texas of our own time, Eli's great-granddaughter, eighty-six-year-old Jeanne Anne, lies dying on the floor of her grand old ranch house, recalling pivotal events in her life. These two generations represent the Texas creed of toughness and determination, Eli adapting to life as a Comanche, J.A. intent on preserving the family fortune in an era when oil is the stinking, noisy commodity that pays for the ranching, and women are considered incapable of managing either. Eli's son Peter recognizes the emptiness at the creed's core, earning his father's contempt and finally achieving a tenuous grace that eludes the other generations.

The Son begins with Eli's cynical, defiant voice: "It was prophesied I would live to see one hundred and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it." It alternates among his viewpoint and those of Jeanne Anne, Peter, and one or two other characters, simultaneously tracking stories set in frontier days, the post-frontier malaise of World War I and the Depression, and the rise and decline of Big Oil. Readers may need the generational chart at the front of the book to keep some of the characters straight. Otherwise, the structure works well, maintaining the strong suspense of the frontier story throughout the novel while also, layer by layer, revealing the corrosive legacy to later generations of the frontier survival ethic shared by all of Texas'  warring populations. Though some of the energy tends to drain out of the later generations' stories as the twentieth century progresses, that loss is thematically important, and Eli's exceptional vigor as a character keeps the novel alive and kicking to the last sentence. (2013; 561 pages)

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Other novels about the American frontier:

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the last days of the Old West trail drives. More info

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger (1964), the humorous, unflinching tale of a white man raised by Indians. More info

True Women by Janice Woods Windle (1993), a family saga set in Guadalupe County, Texas, from pioneer times into the twentieth century. More info


Nonfiction about white captives of American Indians:

Nine Years Among the Indians, 1870-1879: The Story of the Captivity and Life of a Texan Among the Indians by Herman Lehmann (1927). More info

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne (2010), about Quanah Parker, the son of a Comanche chief and Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by Comanches as a nine-year-old girl. More info

Captured by the Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870 edited by Frederick Drimmer (1985). More info


At the Movies:

Little Big Man, the 1970 movie starring Dustin Hoffman as a man kidnapped by the Cheyenne as a boy.


Online:

Herman Lehmann at the Texas State Historical Association website, about a Texas man kidnapped by Apaches shortly before his eleventh birthday.


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