Book Briefs: Cormac McCarthy, Prehistoric Central Texas, Rio Grande border – #bookreview

Here are three specialized books for serious readers of specialized topics. The first provides a “comprehensive yet concise overview” of Cormac McCarthy’s “legacy in American literature.”  The second examines a 14th century civilization in Central Texas that “represents the last prehistoric peoples before the cultural upheaval introduced by European explorers.” And the third delves into the complex, often violent history of the Rio Grande border area that separates Mexico and the United States.

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The Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy
Edited by Steven Frye
(Cambridge University Press – paperback, hardback)

An “international team of McCarthy scholars” provide more than a dozen insightful essays that examine and analyze some of the prolific and reclusive author’s “best known and commonly taught novels,” as well as his “work in cinema, including the many adaptations of his novels to film.” Some of the titles reflected upon include The Road and All the Pretty Horses.

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The Toyah Phase of Central Texas
Late Prehistoric Economic and Social Processes
Edited by Nancy A. Kenmotsu and Douglas K. Boyd
(Texas A&M University Press – hardback, Kindle)

In this important gathering of “studies and interpretive essays,” the editors and other contributors focus on a mobile, prehistoric society of hunter-gatherers whose culture “arose in and around the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas” and whose homeland covered much of Central Texas and South Texas in the 14th century. They were, the book contends, “never isolated from the world around them”–a world that included neighboring tribes and groups in northern Mexico and eastern New Mexico, plus newcomers such as the Apache and Comanche. Yet these “last prehistoric peoples” soon would have their culture changed and overturned by the arrival of European explorers.

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River of Hope
Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands
Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez
(Duke University Press – paperback, hardback, Kindle)

America’s border with Mexico has a complex and troubled past, a complex and troubled present, and likely will have a complex and troubled future. In this thoughtful, well-researched study, Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez, an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa, focuses on how the people who lived in the border area during the 18th and 19th centuries fared as Spain, Mexico, and the United States all vied for control. Ultimately, Spanish colonists near the border became Mexican citizens but then became Americans, whether they wanted to or not, as political and military power shifted and territory changed hands. Meanwhile, those who were caught up in the seesaw battles did not “adopt singular colonial or national identities. Instead, their regionalism, transnational cultural practices, and kinship ties subverted state attempts to control and divide the population.” In short, they intermarried, formed defensive alliances (Mexican, Indian, and Anglo), and identified more with where they lived than with any distant capitol that allegedly controlled them.

Si Dunn

The Last Camel Charge – An intriguing look at America’s pre-Civil War desert military experiment – #bookreview

The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment
Forrest Bryant Johnson
(Berkley Caliber, hardbackKindle)

The U.S. Army employed camels as transportation and pack animals in the American West during the mid-19th century and tried to create “a U.S. camel cavalry, a true camel corps,” the author of this fascinating history work notes.

Initially headquartered near San Antonio, Texas, the fledgling camel corps soon became involved in expeditions of discovery, as well as fighting in several areas.

The notable actions included a victorious camel charge against Mojave Indians in the Arizona Territory and helping naval lieutenant Edward Beale’s successfully create a wagon trail from Texas to California.

The Civil War ended the camel corps experiment, the author shows. But Union and Confederate forces both used camels during the conflict, and the last U.S. Army camel died in captivity in 1934.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that a few wild camels, distant offspring of the Camel Corps, are still alive and roaming the most desolate and isolated areas of the American Southwest. Indeed, the author notes, several wild camels were photographed near a West Texas railroad track in 2003.

Si Dunn

The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill – #bookreview

The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill
By William F. Cody, edited and with an introduction by Frank Christianson
(University of Nebraska Press, paperback, list price $27.95)

“Buffalo Bill” Cody was one hell of a frontiersman and self-promoter, at a time when Americans were hungry for Wild West heroes.

William F. Cody published his part-fiction, part-true illustrated autobiography in 1879, at age 33, recounting his adventures (to that point) as an explorer, Indian fighter, buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider, temporary Medal of Honor winner, and theatrical entertainer.

This new reprint of Buffalo Bill’s book (the original version; others followed) has been edited and provided with a well-written introduction and three appendices by Frank Christianson, an associate professor of English at Brigham Young University. Christianson is author of Philanthropy in British and American Fiction: Dickens, Hawthorne, Eliot, and Howells. Twenty-six additional images and photographs related to Buffalo Bill also have been added.

One helpful feature of Christianson’s book is a chronology of William F. Cody’s event-filled and promotion-filled life. He was born in an Iowa farmhouse in 1846 and lived long enough to become a movie producer four years before his death in 1917.

Interestingly, William F. Cody”s autobiography made it to print just as his frontier career was ending and his career as a stage entertainer and promoter was taking off. Within four years, his “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show would be on its way to becoming, in Christianson’s words, “one of the most popular traveling exhibitions in entertainment history.” 

Christianson notes: “William Cody’s seventy-one years were a time of accelerating change in America, and he found himself in the midst of many of the era’s most defining events. Like the ever-shifting boundary of the American frontier, Cody’s life was characterized by frenetic movement.”

Christianson points out that “Cody, like his father, was an indefatigable entrepreneur” who tried his hand at many things, including unsuccessfully attempting to manage an inn and create a town, but succeeding as a buffalo hunter and military scout, two occupations which “had the most direct bearing upon his future celebrity.”

William F. Cody’s book and Frank Christianson’s expanding materials add up to some very entertaining and informative reading. Yes, Buffalo Bill left behind a legacy often based on self-interest and inflated images of life and events in the American West. But the Honorable William F. Cody also made, Christianson contends, “a valuable contribution to the records of our Western frontier history.”

Si Dunn‘s latest book is a detective novel, Erwin’s Law. His other published works include Jump, a novella, and a book of poetry, plus several short stories, including The 7th Mars Cavalry, all available on Kindle. He is a freelance book reviewer and a former technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist.