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The Edge of Freedom Paperback – January 31, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From the Author

NEW:  By Bob Cavendish,  from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 115 (April, 2012): 428-429.
"Include, also," the review guidelines for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly state, "an evaluation of the author's success in achieving purpose." What, then, should the reader infer of John Willingham's purpose in this "fact-based novel" of the Goliad massacre? Indeed, what ought to be the purpose of any historical fiction offered to historians and aficionados of Southwest history?

Intrigued with certain ambiguities surrounding the defeats at the Alamo and at Goliad, Willingham attempts to "suggest answers to mostly unanswerable questions," "imagining and creating" as a novelist, while remaining close to traditional chronology. Historical fiction and docudramas have become, increasingly, the stuff of public history. How the past is understood, Daniel Aaron noted, is pertinent. Good historical fiction respects its framework while telling its story. How well does The Edge of Freedom pay homage to this revolutionary past?

Beginning with the San Antonio River ferry partnership between Carlos de la Garza and John Bower (both actual figures from the Texas Revolution), The Edge of Freedom narrates the impact of revolutionary Texas driving the two men into separate and rival camps. The narrative shifts easily among the competing perspectives of the Texians (Bower and Fannin's command), the Tejano (de la Garza), and the Mexican (General José Urrea and his command). Here are the familiar events: James Fannin's feeble move to reinforce the Alamo, the withdrawal from Goliad, the battle at Coleto Creek, and the infamous Goliad massacre. This novel's "fiction," however, is not in the sequence or nature of action but in the personal episodes and period dialogue. The Edge of Freedom is the human tragedy around Goliad in March 1836, of Fannin's command indecision and Urrea's struggle between duty and humanity. Conventional historians' interpretations emerge from reports, letters, and diaries-reliable, "eyewitness stuff," long on fact but sometimes ponderous. Good historical fiction recaptures the passion and immediacy at times absent within the bounds of standard chronicles.

The Edge of Freedom succeeds as a "fact-based novel" in its compelling blend of historical sequence and imagination: what likely occurred, and why? Despite the occasionally melodramatic language, "somewhere between the elaborate and formal diction of the late eighteenth century and the more florid language of the Civil War era" (359), we gain an appreciation of the consequences emanating from decisions and commitments reached by the various "adventurers," ranchers, commanders, and others who are a part of this story.

The Edge of Freedom
is not a broad strategic view of the Goliad campaign but is closer to the tactical level. Unlike Kenneth Roberts's Northwest Passage
, Willingham's The Edge of Freedom remains closely tethered to actual events. James Michener once argued that meaningful literature inquires into real motives and behavior of humanity. The Edge of Freedom is an inventive glimpse into the choices and dilemmas that plague people caught up in political turbulence.

How accurate should a fact-based, historical novel be? The "typical historical novelist," said Michener, is "a fairly honest researcher" who "knows what the facts are and ignores or abuses them at his or her peril." Willingham's annotated bibliography of fifty-seven primary and secondary sources follows an epilogue for seven of the principals (including Fannin).  Together these two elements indicate a respect he has for the era but more importantly, the purpose for which he writes.

The Edge of Freedom works best as a supplement to, instead of an alternative to, classic works of Texas's revolution. Read alongside one of the contemporary general histories of the Texas republic or the Texas revolution (my vote: Stephen Hardin's excellent Texian Iliad
), The Edge of Freedom
provides an enriching glimpse into the tragedy whose ghosts were evoked thirty-six days later on the San Jacinto prairies.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 404 pages
  • Publisher: Inkwater Press (January 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592994466
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592994465
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,982,953 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Willingham has been writing about public universities and their honors programs since 2011. He is editor of the website PublicUniversityHonors.Com, and the author of the first edition of A REVIEW OF FIFTY PUBLIC UNIVERSITY HONORS PROGRAMS, published in 2012. The second edition of the REVIEW was published in October 2014. He has a BA with honors, from the University of Texas at Austin, and an MA in history from UT Austin, with minors in education and journalism. From 2011 to 2014, he was a regular contributor to the History News Network (, where he wrote extensively about education issues in Texas, especially the controversy over the adoption of textbooks for public schools and the conflicts between UT Austin and the appointees of Gov. Rick Perry. John is also the author of a novel about the Texas Revolution, titled THE EDGE OF FREEDOM, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Celia Hayes VINE VOICE on February 19, 2011
Format: Paperback
Things are not simple in the borderlands; not now, and when the Presidio la Bahia, or Goliad, was a key strong-point held by rebellious Texians in the War for Independence. Like the Alamo, the Goliad was garrisoned by Texian settlers and eager volunteers lately come from the United States, who came to fight for . . . well, what was it they were fighting for? Independence from Mexico, defense of a little patch of the United States established in the borderlands? To uphold the Mexican Constitution of 1824 and those hopes that that Coahuila y Tejas should be semi-autonomous - not ruled by an autocratic dictatorship from distant Mexico City? Or maybe because many gravitated to any fight going like a trout going upstream? All of these things, or some of them - the answer varies, depending upon the various characters in John Willingham's sensitive and fact-based novel.

The characters muddle through a tangle of cross-purposes and confusion in time of war, although the author is aided immeasurably by the fact that there were survivors and witnesses who left comprehensive accounts. There are three main characters - all of whom existed and took a very real part: ranchers John White Bower and his neighbor and business partner Carlos de la Garza, who indeed ran a ferry operation across the lower San Antonio River. Texian and Tejano, they remained friends and partners before and after the war, in which they fought as their primary sympathies inclined them - on opposite sides. In the end their loyalty is to their own Texas: to their families, their kin and their friends - no matter on what side. Then there is James Fannin - militarily skilled, but ultimately and tragically doubtful of his abilities. He is the figure most clearly and sympathetically drawn.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Larry Knight on February 15, 2011
Format: Paperback
Rather than diminishing Texas history, The Edge of Freedom makes it human without destroying its heroic spirit. That is no small feat. This is the story of James Fannin who surrendered and was executed, not that of the Alamo where men fought to the death and became immortal. One reads here about a man of flesh and blood who made the best decisions he could in confusing, even desperate circumstances. It is Fannin's mortality, and indecisiveness that make the story compelling.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Judith Austin Mills on December 10, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was thoroughly absorbed. And I guess I'll have to go back and peruse some Hemingway again to judge the comparison one reviewer made, because I was put more in mind of Henry James. Hope that doesn't come across as criticism. I am an ardent fan. Willingham's style and structure, both intellectually challenging, suit the complexity of the struggle he writes about.

And only a gifted historian could master and control so much detail about the whereabouts and actions of factual figures. The author imagines their personal characteristics and distinguishing thoughts just as convincingly. By portraying the unique rationale each possessed, he creates a heartening counterpoint to chaotic action. As confusing and tragic as events were during those critical eight weeks in the spring of 1836, he leaves the reader convinced that most people involved were reasonably fair-minded, decent individuals. That objective representation creates a sense of hope, despite the tragic context.

It's about time someone told the full Goliad narrative. Willingham fleshes out the dominant figures--Fannin and Urrea--whom most history pages leave as sketchy. Just as importantly, he makes settlers on both sides of the cultural divide equally sympathetic.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By philip s. watson on April 27, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When I read a historical fiction the dates need to be correct.
Page 17 is dated October, 1836 with Fannin and Bowie riding
along and getting to know one another. But by Fall 1836,
both me are dead.
I love Texas Revolution history and Willingham has
done a good job. Little too much horse info and sometimes
goes a bit slow.
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By D. M. STRIBLING on August 27, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Nice book.
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