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Not a blockbuster but not bad.
on August 16, 2014
The Eagle and the Raven
Our recommendation ─ anytime you come across a James Michener book that's something less than a thousand-page blockbuster, read it. He's that good. And you might want to try one of his big books too, if you never have. Don't be daunted by their size. Michener's smooth prose will carry you along and you'll get through it more quickly than what you might have thought.
Michener's The Eagle and The Raven comes in at just over two hundred pages. Michener calls it narrative fiction, I call it non-fiction YA, not vampirish, grammar-stunted YA, call it historical YA, non-contemporary, historical YA, which isn't to say it's not suitable for adults, it is. It'll just seem breezy.
The first thirty or so of those two-hundred plus pages are a kind of long introduction that really doesn't have much, if anything to do with the story itself, except for a few pages telling us how the book came about. (It was a chapter excised from one of Michener's behemoths - Texas, 1120 pages.)
The rest of the introduction is Michener telling us (boasting,) about how prolifically he was writing in the nineteen-eighties, his last full decade of work. (He died in 1997 at the age of ninety.)
The book is the juxtaposition of two men who are, each in his way, the quintessential representative of his people at a turbulent time in Texas history, the period from roughly 1810 to 1870. During those years, Texas went from a colony of Spain, to a state of Mexico, to an independent country, to an American state, to a Confederate state and back to an American state again.
The Eagle is Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, otherwise and usually known as Santa Anna, or, as he fancied himself, the Napoleon of the West. The Eagle was eleven times president of Mexico, four times banished from his country, and, toward the end of his life and for a short time, penniless on the streets of New York City. Santa Anna lost a leg in battle and the leg took on a life of its own, becoming a sort of saintly relic in Catholic Mexico. The veneration of the leg was interrupted, the leg dragged through the streets and thrown to the dogs while its owner was still alive, fitting, perhaps - the general was no saint, and how does a man react when he learns his leg, miles away, has become both the cause and the victim of a riot? Santa Anna shrugged.
Santa Anna was in some ways very capable but he was mostly cruel.
He learned about fighting when he was just a teenager and Mexico was still a part of the Spanish Empire. His teacher was a man named Arredondo who was also a capable soldier but whose success depended partly on spreading fear. Prisoners who surrendered were executed, a tactic Santa Anna learned well and implemented at The Alamo and Goliad and elsewhere. Civilians were massacred too. Both Arredondo and Santa Anna were terrorists, by their own century's standards, ours too.
The Raven, Sam Houston, comes late to the Texas drama. Born in Tennessee, he didn't arrive in Teja until long after Mexico had won its independence from Spain and Tejas was struggling to become Texas.
Houston was a frontiersman and an anomaly. Imagine a man who goes off to live with the Indians and who, while running through the woods with his adopted people, stops and pulls a copy of the Illiad out of his pocket, sits down and reads. Not your typical woodsie. I was reminded of Peter O'Toole as the eccentric Englishman, Lawrence of Arabia, in the 1962 movie, and of David Carradine in the 1970s classic western TV show, Kung-Fu. There are sketches in the book by Charles Shaw, well-known artist of things Texas and one of those sketches captures the essential Sam Houston. While still a young man and living with the Indians and visiting the settlements, Sam insists on dressing in Indian fashion, long blanket, feathers and moccasins. The Indian garb, like a lot about Houston in his lifetime, offends people and does Sam not realize he's offensive or does he not care? Probably the latter.
The book presents the Eagle and the Raven in alternating chapters and with a sense they are careening toward a showdown, which comes at the battle of San Jacinto. (I suppose if this were fiction instead of history, they'd have met at the Alamo, but Sam Houston was too smart to get holed up in an old church, like Davy Crockett and Jim Bridger and John Wayne.) You probably know, or can guess how it all turns out, it's Texas today, not Tejas, but you'll feel the rush of excitement, the acceleration, as you move toward the (seemingly inevitable) denouement.