- Author: Philipp Meyer
- Published: 2013
The story of America is a history of violence. The enlightenment ideas debated by our founding fathers in the ornate halls of the eastern cities meant little to the cutthroat pioneers pushing west in the 1800’s. Theirs was a savage wilderness of endless plains, roving buffalo, scalped corpses, and frontier justice.To gorge on nature’s bounty was to pay in blood for a seat at the table.
The Son, written with masterful prowess by Philip Meyer, plunges the reader headfirst into the vicious birth of Texas. It is a stunning achievement, detailing the multigenerational rise and fall of the fictional McCulloughs, one of Texas’s most powerful oil dynasties.
It was a time of monumental upheaval, when the “growing Anglo hordes” pouring into the Texas plains clashed fiercely with the Mexicans and Comanches trying in vain to hold the line. The brutality of the frontier was shared by all who waged war there. Any preconceived notions of the noble savage as innocent victim is obliterated within the first few pages. “The Comanche philosophy toward outsiders was nearly papal in its thoroughness: torture and kill the men, rape and kill the women, take the children for slaves or adoption.” The novel springs to life the night a 13-year old Eli McCullough and his brother are abducted by Comanches after witnessing the burning of their home, and the horrific rapes and murders of their sister and mother. The ferocity of the attack is shocking, ripping the apathetic reader into a wormhole back through time.
Clever and fearless, Eli slowly wins the respect of the tribe, and is soon hunting, fighting, and fornicating alongside a group of doomed men. His passages amongst the tribe are almost addictive in their beauty and brutality. A last glimpse into a chapter of humanity now lost.
Conversely, Eli’s eventual reentry into white “civilized society” are comic gold, exposing how far the cultural gulf was between the freedom of the frontier and the straightjacket of social order. His adventures stealing his neighbor’s horses, wine and women are laugh-out-loud funny, while also twisting the knife into the pretense that an “enlightened” existence is superior to a natural one.
From the beginning, the novel skips around in chronology, and we are presented with two additional protagonists in the McCullough family tree - Eli’s mournful son Peter, and his granddaughter Jean Anne. At first it is a trial to take on their stories, as nothing is more compelling than Eli’s adventures with the Natives. But as the novel unfolds, it becomes a thrill to see how Eli’s now legendary life affects his descendants. Peter grapples mightily with his father’s barbarism, torn between family loyalty and the knowledge of those trampled underfoot by their ambition. Jean Anne absorbs the lessons of her grandfather’s fortitude at an early age, and soon becomes the family matriarch, surpassing her brothers for control of the family’s ever expanding empire. Her battles against the brazen sexism woven into every layer of Texas society make her a steely heroine to the reader, and a tolerated anomaly to her contemporaries. It is a lonely journey, and her grit stays with you.
The sins of our past rarely remain buried, and the novel charges forward toward a shocking conclusion, sown by the misdeeds of decades before. It leaves one questioning not only the individual acts of a family, but the popular narrative of our country. Where does history end and myth begin? What do we sacrifice when we deify the dead? Who’s version of history do we accept? Who is accountable when ideals of democracy are demolished by Darwin’s wrecking ball? There are no easy answers.
Philip Meyer rips away the nostalgic gauze of memory and exposes America’s raw wounds. It is a work of fiction that illuminates the reality of the frontier more than most history books ever could. A bold and invigorating tale, ferocious in it’s pursuit of the palpable and panoramic in its view of who we are. Among many things, it reminds us that to romanticize the past is to disservice the present, and teaches a valuable parting lesson: To live and die in a civilized society is a gift, born out of bloodshed, and too easily taken away. It is not to be wasted. You can start by reading The Son.