Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle 'The Gates of the Alamo' Reviewed

By Mark Busby

MARCH 28, 2000: 

The Gates of the Alamo: A Novel by Stephen Harrigan (Knopf), 584 pp., $25.95

The truth of the Alamo, like most distant historical events layered by mythic retellings, is an enigma shrouded in mystery, obscured by politics, and clouded by legend. Any novelist who wants to tackle such a story has the task of trying to make the mythic human and remain true to the historical record, or at least to the large human truths associated with the events, without inflaming the passions of the true believers who remember the Alamo differently.

In Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry recast the history of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving and the trail drive into fiction and told an epic story. In The Gates of the Alamo, Stephen Harrigan takes the most celebrated event in Texas history and accepts the daunting challenge of telling the story in a fresh and compelling manner. The result is a stunning, epic novel that will shape a new millennium's view of the events of March 1836 and eventually supplant John Wayne's 1958 film The Alamo as the source of popular images of the siege that shaped Texas.

What makes The Gates of the Alamo work is Harrigan's ability to induce suspense about an event when everyone already knows the outcome of it. Harrigan tells the well-known stories of William Barrett Travis, David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Santa Anna through a narrative that revolves around several vividly created fictional characters. As the novel begins in 1835, Harrigan's main character, Edmund McGowan, a 44-year-old naturalist, is on his way to Mexico to renew his government commission to provide a thorough botanical survey of the "subprovince" of Texas. Riding his mustang Cabezon and accompanied by a mongrel called Professor, McGowan is an unlikely hero. Quick of mind and committed to his work, McGowan tries to stay clear of the political whirlwinds swirling through Texas and lead a solitary life on the trail of knowledge.

Events intrude upon his longings for the ascetic life and goal of creating a lasting compendium called Flora Texana. Stopping in a boarding house in Refugio, McGowan meets Mary Mott, a recently widowed woman who is trying to raise her teenage son Terrell in a world where the dangers of Karankawa attacks loom. By chance, the notorious alligator wrestler, Jim Bowie, has taken rooms there too. Harrigan creates these characters through careful detail and clear description. Young Terrell, for example, carries a madstone, perhaps a deer's gallstone, as a secret defense:

What solace Terrell found came from the invisible: the Irish praying their rosaries, proclaiming their Joyful and Sorrowful Mysteries, singing in their lugubrious Latin; the unredeemed Kronks with their ecstatic mitotes, listening to the gods whisper in their ears; his own little madstone, so perfect in its shape and color, so complete and powerful, somehow offering to share its power with him.

By making McGowan a naturalist, Harrigan can call upon his own considerable knowledge of the natural world. As a contributing editor of Texas Monthly for several years, Harrigan often wrote about nature, later collecting many of those essays in A Natural State and Comanche Midnight, after early success with novels Aransas and Jacob's Well. The specifics broaden the presentation of the natural world of 1835:

Mary and Edmund drove through fields of lantana and expanses of shimmering wildflowers -- cloth-of-gold and dandelion and lovely blue dayflowers that grew along the edges of the brilliant yellow blossoms like the border on a quilt. The air was thick with the fragrance of these flowers, and along the edges of the salt marshes flocks of shorebirds came cascading down from the sky -- pink spoonbills and willets and pelicans whose preposterous bodies were as white as bed linen.

McGowan leaves his animals in Mary Mott's care and takes ship passage to Mexico, where he meets Stephen F. Austin and achieves a face-to-face meeting with Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna. The Mexican president renews the commission but sends McGowan to Yucatán to research the financial possibility of using the gum from the chicle tree.

Harrigan counterpoints these Texian characters with several Mexican characters whose stories lead back and forth across the border until the stories come together at the most famous mission in Béxar. Tenesforo Villaseñor is a lieutenant in the Mexican army who becomes a member of Santa Anna's inner circle through a display of valor. Sargente Blas ¡ngel Montoya commands a cazadore company ordered to travel north with its attendant chusma, the crowd following the soldiers, that includes Isabella, a Mayan "witch" who carries her medicines in a jaguar-skin pouch.

Harrigan's experience as a screenwriter (he teaches screenwriting in UT's M.F.A. program and wrote screenplays for The Last of His Tribe, among others) is especially apparent in these intercutting scenes of Mexican and Texian characters. Although we know the historical conclusion, we become interested in these fictional characters' lives and want to know what will happen to them because their stories are strongly human ones of growing affection between Mary and Edmund, the self-proclaimed ascetic; of Mary's love and concern for her son Terrell, who feels disgraced in his mother's eyes because of a brief fling with a slow-witted local girl; of Tenesforo's desire to please Santa Anna above all things; and of Blas' growing awareness of Isabella's quiet power.

Along the way, Harrigan also presents his versions of the legendary players in the most renowned episode in Texas history. After over a century of hagiography about Bowie, Travis, Crockett, and the others, more recently the tide has turned toward finding the faults in these figures. The portraits of Bowie the redneck slave owner, Travis the lustful adulterer, or Crockett the consummate politician who may have died begging Santa Anna for his life, have dominated the discussions. Harrigan is fully aware of the details and discrepancies in the historical record.

Over and over again, we find him balancing his presentations of the legends of the Alamo. He does not retell the famous but probably apocryphal story of Travisí drawing a line in the sand, but he does include the equally famous and historically validated, eloquent letter Travis wrote from the Alamo. Harrigan's Travis is called a fornicator too fond of Texana girls, but he is also a loving father and a man concerned about ending his marriage properly. Harrigan's Bowie is loud and boisterous, a braggart and bully, but he is presented as a man who loved his Bexareña wife and cares for her family. Unlike many of the other men, Bowie speaks Spanish fluently and understands the culture but is also profane. When Terrell asks him where he'll be later, he says, "Well, by God, son, I guess I'll be in the fucking Alamo like everybody else." While Harrigan's Bowie wrestles alligators and wields the famous knife, he is too ill with typhoid to be either conscious of the events or capable of felling numerous Mexicans in the final assault.

Even Harrigan's Santa Anna receives a careful, nonstereotypical characterization. He is not the small, dark, brooding figure usually portrayed but is elegant and sophisticated, described as sitting "with his long legs crossed, seeming perfectly at repose except for one slipper-clad foot that bobbed up and down like a metronome." Later, he becomes the obsessive figure who orders the death of the Alamo prisoners, the Santa Anna of history.

Unlike McMurtry, who has played fast and loose with Texas history, moving Bigfoot Wallace from the Mier Expedition to the Santa Fe in Dead Man's Walk, Harrigan set out, as he tells in an author's note, with a "pledge of absolute fidelity to the truth of the events" in this novel. His research was thorough, but still the truth is elusive. Harrigan acknowledges the influences of historians such as Stephen Hardin, Frank de la Teja, Alan Huffines, and Kevin Young, and especially Tom Lindley. Lindley's influence led to Harrigan's rejecting the Davy Crockett story from the famous "diary" by Mexican Lieutenant José Enrique de la Peña, recently purchased at auction for $350,000 by a member of the UT Board of Regents and placed in the UT library. (It will be the subject of a conference, "Eyewitness to the Texas Revolution: José Enrique de la Peña and His Narrative" on April 29 at UT's Center for American History, at which Harrigan will speak.)

Harrigan's Crockett is one of the most interesting of Harrigan's historical characters. Large, loud, and politic, he is a man with humor and sensitivity, not completely a backwoods lout, but something like Opie's dad with a Kentucky rifle and a heavy heart. After Crockett tells Mary that he came to Texas after being stung by the people's rejection when he lost an election, Mary thinks of him as "a shattered fifty-year-old man still hostage to his boyhood dream of flight and renewal." But Harrigan's Davy does not die swinging Old Betsy at the oncoming hoards on the Alamo wall, as John Wayne dramatized it, nor at the hands of Santa Anna's firing squad, as de la Peña supporters believe, nor begging for his life, as others suggest.

These interpretations of history will spark discussions and maybe fistfights and hair-pulling among believers on different sides, but The Gates of the Alamo will be remembered for its interpretation of history and perhaps more for its memorable fictional characters, vivid descriptions, and effective narrative. While Harrigan worked on the novel for over eight years, he consulted two other novelists who have written about Texas history, Elizabeth Crook (Promised Lands and The Raven's Bride) and Jeff Long (Empire of Bones), discussing the craft of writing a historical novel. Harrigan's driving story sucks readers along, so much so that it's easy to overlook some aspects of the plot that seem creaky in retrospect. Is it really possible that these fictional characters get themselves into the middle of every major event in Texas history in 1835-36? Could anyone really have moved quite so easily from the Mexican camp to the Texian, as Harrigan presents? Would there have been some secondary figure like Edmund McGowan who would have known Stephen F. Austin and Santa Anna, been confidant of both Santa Anna's aide Juan Almonte and Jim Bowie, running into them easily, as if the large expanse of Texas and Mexico were really the size of Highland Mall? Would Mary Mott have left one camp for another in the circumstances Harrigan presents toward novel's end?

The strength of the narrative pushes these questions aside and makes The Gates of the Alamo a compelling work of fiction that will no doubt become the proverbial major motion picture. In the introduction to Comanche Midnight, Harrigan wrote that the essays there "address my old preoccupations with worlds that have vanished, communication that is sealed off, perceptions that are out of reach." He continues, saying they "are a record not just of certain events and people and places, but of the mind that witnessed them, and that is still trying to grasp what it beheld." In this major new work of fiction, Harrigan becomes that synthesizing mind. He researched the often conflicting details of an extraordinary moment in Texas history, decided how that history should be told through an imaginative re-creation, produced memorable human characters dealing with tested literary themes of unrequited and parental love, personal responsibility, and ambition, and has now published the definitive novel about the Alamo. And that ain't a bad legacy.


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