Two for Texas by James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke is one of my favorite writers. Until now, nearly all of his books which I have read were detective novels. The only exception was a short story collection. The latest book of his that I have read was also out of the ordinary for Burke.
This book is a work of historical fiction. By that I mean it takes place in a specific time and place. In this book that was the so-called revolution of Texas in 1835 to 1836. Secondary characters in the novel include Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crocket.
I was struck by the similarity of this book to the best American novel, The Adventurers of Huckleberry Finn. Both novels are about 2 males making a burst for freedom. In Two for Texas, the two protagonists escape prison after killing their prison guard. The guard was not a sympathetic figure, yet I found his murder shocking. The good guys don’t often commit murder. Here they did.
The book is a classic about freedom and the refusal to buckle under to tyranny. First the tyranny of the French prison is resisted. Then the tyranny of the Mexican soldiers.
The revolutionary war leads to massive violence and death. At the end the violence is over, but there is no clear sense of redemption. Here is how With his typical mastery of metaphor and imagery Burke describes the end of the battle through the instrument of an image of a young boy, Son Holland, greedily drinking water from a canteen. He call is this way,
Son pulled the wood plug from the canteen and drank until the water poured down from his lips.
“You drink like that was whiskey,” the soldier said.
The water ran down his chin and neck and over his dusty chest, and as he lifted the canteen higher he thought he could see the whole landscape, the breastworks, the blackened crater where the Mexican cannon had been, the ground strewn with dead men and horses, the violent green of the trees in the distance tilt upward into the shimmering sky, as though it all were being pulled over the earth’s edge.
I particularly took note of the “violent green of the trees.” There is no idyllic regeneration here, often symbolized by the colour green. There is no comfort to be had. Son, a young boy, has been throw a violent battle, but perhaps he too has been “pulled over the earth’s edge.”
When Son Holland and his partner, the much older wizened and sprinkled with cynicism Hugh Allison and the Tonkawa woman Sana leave the territory by crossing the Red River, Burke describes the scene this way,
The sky was so blue and hard that it looked like it would crack if a rifle ball were fired against it.
The war is over. At least until the next one. And there is no reconciliation. There is only the enduring stubbornness of men and women.