An Unconventional History of Texas, From a Writer With the State in His Veins

An Unconventional History of Texas, From a Writer With the State in His Veins

Hodge begins his book with an atmospheric prelude (“The boy wears a cowboy hat and boots, his jeans tucked in. He carries a gun, and a knife, and sometimes a sword”) that to my ear echoes the opening of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” (“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire”). Lest you suspect me of overexplication, Hodge himself takes time out, a little past the midway point of his book, for a 14-page appreciation of McCarthy’s fiction, particularly his Texas-set novel “No Country for Old Men.” Caution: Writing about Cormac McCarthy while simultaneously writing about the immemorial violence of the Texas borderlands can lead to sentences like this:

“And everywhere are the ruins of those ancient and not so ancient peoples who were slaughtered in those places and whose lives left no articulate testament to bear witness to the joys and hopes and dreams and sorrows that they shared before pale riders the color of dust swooped down and spilled their blood onto the thirsty ground.”


If Hodge is susceptible every now and then to the hypnotic Bible rhythms of McCarthy’s language, for the most part he writes with an earnest, stripped-down clarity. He’s smart, observant and skeptical. He has no interest in adding another volume to the library shelves of rousing Texas hoohah. “As I reread the conventional histories,” he writes, “I remained dissatisfied by their generalizations and hoary meditations on Texas ‘character.’ Much of it struck me as self-congratulatory nationalistic rubbish. I read those fat tomes mostly for the footnotes, the infinite forking paths of primary sources and archives.” Even “Lone Star,” T. R. Fehrenbach’s venerable history of the state (so massive and self-confident its first words are “In the beginning”), makes Hodge a little queasy, because “such epic histories sweep high above the hard ground of lived experience.”

Hard ground and lived experience are what “Texas Blood” is all about. Hodge reminisces about his own background as a young ranch hand — loading livestock into trailers, rounding up sheep on muleback, crossing the Rio Grande to Ciudad Acuña every weekend for flaming tequila shots at famous watering holes like Ma Crosby’s. He traces the history of the region through the Jumano and Apache Indians who had at one time or another considered themselves in possession of it. He writes about Spanish explorers like Cabeza de Vaca and notorious scalp hunters like the Irish-born James Kirker, or the former Texas Ranger John Joel Glanton, who went on to assume toxic literary immortality as a character in “Blood Meridian.”

In other chapters Hodge follows the trail of his long-ago Texas-bound ancestors through Missouri and Kansas, hangs out with the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley, explores the ancient rock art along the Pecos, and takes part in a pilgrimage to the top of Mount Cristo Rey across the New Mexico border from El Paso, where Indian dancers known as matachines perform a centuries-old dance depicting Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, “the ancient drama of conquest, love, betrayal and conversion.”

All of this is often riveting, but it can be frustrating too, because “Texas Blood” is more a box of parts than a smoothly cresting narrative. Most of it has already appeared as articles and essays in publications like Harper’s, Popular Science, Texas Monthly and The Sewanee Review. The author does his best to discharge an overall impression of randomness in a kind of process statement early in the book, advising us that he will be “always moving aslant, both physically and metaphorically, cutting against the currents of institutional, governmental and industrial momentum with side trips and excursions, historical and literary and personal interludes, as well as digressions and dalliances with a broad cast of characters.”

Point taken, I guess. I’m not really complaining, and even if I were — as Hodge slyly reminds us in his assessment of Cormac McCarthy’s work — “book reviews leave little trace in the strata of literary history.”

Even for readers who prefer the sensation of moving ahead to moving aslant, “Texas Blood” is a rich journey. Whether he’s writing about modern-day drug smuggling (“Cube-shaped spaces in the middle of a pallet of cilantro might not necessarily be packages of dope, but the odds are good”) or the itineraries of 16th-century Spanish entradas, Hodge is always deep in the buffalo grass. His reporting is vigorous. As a citizen historian, he has a reliable eye for important scholarship: Pekka Hämäläinen on Comanches, Carolyn Boyd on pictographs. As he promises, he hews close to primary sources, such as Frederick Law Olmsted’s lively 1860 travel narrative, “A Journey Through Texas,” or the often-heartbreaking crossing-the-plains diaries of women like Ruth Shackelford (“Little Annie died this morning just before daylight. She died very hard”).

Best of all, Hodge is haunted. He never gets mystical, but neither is he ever out of touch with the shimmering, mysterious history of the land he’s writing about, or the unfathomable allure it had for ancient peoples and his own pioneer family. “Why would anyone attempt to settle in this unforgiving landscape?” he asks. “What were they searching for that was found here, in the devil’s own country, alongside his namesake river?”

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