July 19, 2013 6:17 pm

How the West was won

A Texan family saga spanning seven generations
An illustration of Indians on horses©Tom Clohosy Cole

The Son, by Philipp Meyer, Simon & Schuster, RRP£14.99 / Ecco RRP$27.99, 576 pages

Philipp Meyer’s brilliant second novel, The Son, makes for ideal reading while the US Congress roils with conflicting immigration bills. Political tempers run high over how to deal with what, from one perspective, has been a steady, illegal take­over of whole swaths of American territory by largely Mexican Hispanics. But then, from a longer-ranged perspective, Mexicans have simply been organising a take-back. Having immersed himself in Texas lore, Meyer makes the case that it has always been thus: peoples have been stealing this land from one another beginning with its first inhabitants.

 

Seen through the eyes of a modern-day illegal immigrant from Mexico, a passage near the novel’s end merits quotation in full: the Americans “thought that simply because they had stolen something, no one should be allowed to steal it from them. But of course that was what all people thought: that whatever they had taken, they should be allowed to keep it forever. He was no better. His people had stolen the land from the Indians, and yet he did not think of that even for an instant – he thought only of the Texans who had stolen it from his people. And the Indians from whom his people had stolen the land had themselves stolen it from other Indians.” There you have the history of the American West in a paragraph.

The same flips of perspective have occurred in the arts. The traditional portrayal of how the West was won, in which Native Americans are brutes who savage valiant frontiersmen, gave way to the “Little Big Man” model, in which the savages are the white people – though Mexicans in film westerns have been pretty consistently played as sniggering, greedy and two-faced.

In an epic tale spanning seven generations, Meyer achieves an admirable neutrality. Given how far the cultural pendulum has swung towards the truly civilised Indian versus the thieving, heartless whites, the Comanches’ scalping, gang-raping and child-killing in The Son is almost refreshing. No party has clean hands. Yet ranchers, oilmen and Indians all rise to moments of nobility and self-sacrifice.

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It’s a hefty book, and the heavily populated family tree at the front seems at first intimidating. But Meyer wisely focuses on just three characters, whose voices interweave. He covers an ambitious chunk of time, from the 1840s to the present, and skips around in non-chronological order, yet remains clear at every juncture. The delivery of information is methodical. Meyer provides the storytelling equivalent of a five-star hotel. Your every narrative need will be catered to.

Eli McCullough is 12 in 1849 when, in his father’s absence, his mother and sister are raped and murdered by Comanches and Eli and his brother are taken captive. The bookish brother does not survive but Eli wins acceptance from the tribe. When the clan is devastated by smallpox, caught from a soldier whom they tortured for fun, Eli agrees to be traded back to the whites for a reward that will see the remaining stragglers through the hard winter. He has a stint in the Texas Rangers, chasing after the very Indians who captured him as a boy. In time, Eli (known as “The Colonel”) becomes one of the state’s wealthiest landowners, raising cattle and later leasing his acreage for oil exploration. This is a man with nine lives. But Eli’s life is shot through with yearning for his wild, Indian adolescence, and by the age of 100 he has seen the taming and ruination of the land he loved – and helped to ruin.

Eli’s son Peter is made of less stern stuff, and never recovers from his horror that his father helped to murder the family of Mexicans with whom they had been convivial neighbours for decades. In a betrayal of his lineage, Peter falls in love with the sole survivor of the massacre and absconds to Mexico. The true heir to The Colonel’s legacy is his gritty, independent great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne – a woman who builds an oil empire in a man’s world.

 

The writing is strong – “riders were suddening out of the trees” – and rich with detail. The lowdown on how the Comanche used every sinew of the buffalo is reported down to the kidney tallow and gall bladder bile. Characterisation is deft: Peter’s brother “inherited my father’s great ability to make any compliment sound patronising”. Sharp social observations are interjected in passing: there was “a time when the wealthy were exemplars. When you held yourself to a higher standard, when you lived as an example to others. When you did not parade your inheritance in front of a camera; when you did not accept the spotlight unless you’d done something. But that obligation had been lost. The rich were as anxious for attention as any scullery maid.”

The story loses momentum towards the end and, inevitably, the paterfamilias Eli is more compelling than his issue. But that’s quibbling. Just like Meyer’s riveting 2009 debut American Rust, this is a wonderful novel.

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel is ‘Big Brother’ (HarperCollins)

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