Andrea Reads America: Texas

Map of books set in Texas
Andrea Reads America: Texas

To me, Texas is Lonesome Dove. The novel didn’t land the way Larry McMurtry had intended — as an anti-Western critiquing the misogyny and racism of the Western mythology. Instead it ended up being one of the greatest Westerns of all time. When asked by Mother Jones “You felt that Lonesome Dove was misinterpreted, that you’d intended it as an anti-Western. In what sense?”, McMurtry responded, “Would you like your menfolk to be that way? The Western myth is a heroic myth, and yet settling the West was not heroic.” This makes me love Lonesome Dove all that much more, and is probably the reason it’s the only Western that has ever resonated with me, other than True Grit.

I was eager to read other Texas books in addition to Lonesome Dove, and especially stories by Katherine Anne Porter and something, anything, by Cormac McCarthy. I attempted McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and just could not get into it, but I adored Katherine Anne Porter.

Lonesome Dove book cover Novel: Lonesome Dove
Author: Larry McMurtry, born Wichita, Texas 1936
Setting: 1860s Texas to Montana

If you don’t care for Westerns, you might not like this book. But then again, if you don’t care for Westerns, you might love it. I have no interest in Westerns. But I love Lonesome Dove.

It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.

Perhaps the reason Lonesome Dove has become one of the most popular Westerns of all time is precisely because it is so unlike all the others in its subtle criticism of how the West was “won.” Perhaps the depth of the characters, and the treatment of all sides of the stories — from the impossible position for women in those times to the unjustness of stealing natives’ land — resonates with readers and that’s why it was such a success.

I think we spent our best years fighting on the wrong side.

I’ve read this book so many times, I’ve lost count. It is one of my top five favorite books: for setting, characters, dialogue, depth, humor, emotion. I love these characters like friends. Each time I read the book I am grateful for how long it is because it means I’ll get to spend more time with them. Each time, even though the story is set on the page as it always has been and always will be, I also hope they’ll make different decisions in the end.

Borderlands La Frontera book cover Book: Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
Author: Gloria Anzaldúa, born Rio Grande Valley, TX 1942
Setting: 1970s-80s Texas

Written in the 1980s in a mixture of Spanish and English, where neither is translated to the other, Anzaldúa’s La Frontera is a true blending: of Mexican, Indio, and white; of feminine and feminist; of Chicana and lesbian rejected by the race she defends against whites who denigrate it.

Anzaldúa breaks all the rules of her race. She is different, queer, rejects the macho debasement of women by Chicano/Latino men. This differentness is not part of the culture she was raised in, and she aims to change that. She argues that it is the blended people, the people of mixed race, who are the future. They will be more adaptable, malleable, are accepting and inclusive, because they aren’t just one type.

We need this to keep from annihilating ourselves.

The future will belong to the mestiza. Because the future depends on the straddling of two or more cultures.

Passionate and written by a women with a mastery of multiple languages, Borderlands/La Frontera gave me a new appreciation of what it means to be intersectional and how many things are stacked against you if you are woman, of color, or gay. And when you’re all three? You don’t fit anywhere. You are excluded everywhere. You have forge your own way, and the strength that requires is humbling.

The Old Order by Katherine Anne Porter book cover Book: The Old Order: Stories of the South
Author: Katherine Anne Porter, born Indian Creek, Texas, 1890
Setting: mostly Texas

I’ve been looking forward to Texas for a long time so I could read Katherine Anne Porter. I’d heard so much about her, and she didn’t disappoint. I love these short stories. They center primarily around a white Grandmother and her now free but formerly her slave, Aunt Nannie. At first the stories seemed painfully dated, with “good white folk” talking blithely about slaves and “Negroes” as if whites are doing them a favor and the black people in the stories are happy in their station, like in Gone With the Wind. These first stories made me feel all messed up inside because the writing and the stories are so good, but I can’t take the racism.

Then I came to a story from a black character’s point of view, and I realized oh, Porter gets it. She’s Doing Something here. She very powerfully shows the difference between white views of their black servants (that they’re friends and well-treated and they want to be doing what they’re doing) and the blacks’ views (get me out of this house so I can rest, get me to nighttime so I can rest, give me freedom to do what I want instead of doing the whites’ bidding).

Something that struck me in Porter’s stories is that each one contained one powerful visual scene that’s stuck with me, whether the grandmother riding her horse with her perfect erect posture, the whip with holes in it that pulled off discs of slaves’ flesh when they were lashed with it, the frightening clown swinging from the trapeze at the circus, or Aunt Nannie sitting on her porch smoking her corncob pipe.

“Hello Maggie,” or “Thank you Maggie,” or even, “Goodbye, Maggie.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about names lately, about their importance, about what they mean. I wrote once about making sure you include your name in your blog bio, and a fellow writer, Jamie Wallace, was encouraging her readers to do the same. She and I laughed about ridding the world of “About” pages without names, and then I got to wondering, why do we care? What is so important about a person’s name, why are those one or two words, “Andrea Badgley” or “Jamie Wallace,” so vital for connecting?

Lonesome DoveI’ve wondered about this for a long time, probably since the first time I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. McMurtry places a lot importance on names. In addition to giving his characters colorful distinctions like “Soupy Jones” and “Pea Eye Parker,” he writes at length and in hilarious detail about who gets his name on the Hat Creek Outfit’s sign, and how an illiterate character, Deets, pouts because those five letters, “Deets,” don’t look long enough on the sign to represent all the work he does on the ranch.

But more importantly, names come into play in the relationships of Woodrow Call, a captain of the Texas Rangers and a man of few words. One of his heartbreaking character flaws is that he does not use people’s names, not when it comes to matters of personal life and emotions, and it wounds his loved ones deeply that he won’t acknowledge them by name. Especially his lover and his son. Each time I read the book (and there have been many), I think, maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time he’ll say, “Hello Maggie,” or “Thank you Maggie,” or even, “Goodbye, Maggie.”

My heart aches every single time, when he doesn’t say it, and it has long puzzled me as to why it’s so hurtful. After all, a man like Woodrow Call experiences the world differently from me. He’s not chatty. He doesn’t care for words. He experiences life in more of a zen state: quiet, observant, meditative. Solitary. He doesn’t speak much as a whole – words aren’t as important to him as actions and deeds, and too much talking aggravates him – so it should come as no surprise that names have little value to him. Those who love him, including myself, know this about him. But still, it hurts.

Personally, I like to call people by name. I wasn’t always like that. Lonesome Dove had some influence, and though he has no idea, my husband’s uncle Mike is the one who ultimately changed me. Uncle Mike is the world’s friendliest guy, a huge teddy bear of a man, and whenever he speaks to me, he makes me feel like I’m the most important person in the world. He says, “Andrea, I’ll tell you why I love the Buckeyes,” or, “Andrea, that was a brutal winter – the snow drifts were higher than the fence!” or “That’s a fine boy you’ve raised, Andrea.” For the longest time I could not figure out why he always made me feel so warm and welcome, and then I realized, it’s because when he talks to me, he says my name. He hugs me and says, “It’s so good to see you, Andrea,” as opposed to “It’s so good to see you,” which could be for anybody. When he addresses me by name, he makes me feel special. He’s not just talking to anyone, he’s talking to me.

Addressing a person by name — “Maggie” — is the equivalent of saying, with one word, “I am focused on you; you are important to me; I want to give you my attention.” That one word contains an entire identity — the shape of her face, the lightness of her voice, the way she moves across the room, the gentleness of her touch, the warmth of her heart — and speaking a name forges a powerful link, like the zing of connection when you make eye contact, that Woodrow just wasn’t willing to give. Woodrow wouldn’t make Maggie feel special by singling her out, by acknowledging her identity, by indicating with a simple, solitary word, “You are important to me.”

“You don’t never say [my name],” she said. “You don’t never call me nothin’. I just wish you’d say it once when you come.”

“I don’t know what that would amount to,” he said honestly.

Maggie sighed. “I’d just feel happy if you did,” she said. “I’d just feel so happy.”

I would, too, Maggie.

Originally published August, 2013, on Butterfly Mind.