A novel about the Alamo promises as much suspense as a movie about the Titanic: we already know how it's going to end. The bloody siege of the Alamo was, of course, not only the defining crisis in the Texan struggle for independence from Mexico but also an event that secured martyrdom for the 200 or so men who died there and transformed a dusty Franciscan mission into a national shrine, an American Troy. As with all mythologized chronicles, however, the Battle of the Alamo ultimately resolves into mundane fact, a catalog of human error, ego, and heroism. And it is these details that Stephen Harrigan regards in his broad and powerful third novel, The Gates of the Alamo
Passing lightly over the oft-profiled Alamo stalwarts--Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and the young commander William Travis--Harrigan focuses on fictional secondaries, primarily botanist Edmund McGowan and mother and son Mary and Terrell Mott. Rigidly devoted to his work, Edmund straddles the fence in the dispute over Texas, even as war murmurs grow. But when he meets widowed Mary, who maintains her small inn with a steady, gentle resourcefulness, his good nature pulls him steadily into the inevitable conflict. Mary herself is forced to quarter Mexican soldiers; and then, as she watches incredulously, her young son seeks to test himself in the erupting skirmishes. Eventually the trio find themselves inside the Alamo during the nearly two-week battle, their various conciliations frustrated by the surrounding mayhem.
Harrigan's Texas is an uncertain, dangerous jostling of peoples, a place where disaster threatens too frequently, where practical knowledge is paramount and political ambivalence untenable, and where a primal beauty appears often as if by magic: "Hundreds and hundreds of lush gray cranes ... spanned the sky almost from horizon to horizon, and the whole procession moved with the quiet, ordained manner in which events unfold in a dream." However, the emblematic significance of the Alamo itself remains inscrutable. As Mary tends to the dying, watching hope turn to hopelessness, she can only respond to Travis's rallying orations with disillusionment: "She had heard enough of these empty patriotic effusions by now to feel that the Alamo was nothing but a sinking island of rhetoric." The Gates of the Alamo nonetheless sweeps us into the many and variegated smaller stories that compose the larger one. It's a book to remember. --Ben Guterson
From Publishers Weekly
Settling his fictional cast firmly at the heart of 19th-century Texas, novelist Harrigan (Jacob's Well) retells the story of the Alamo with consummate skill, weaving a wealth of historical detail into a tight, moving human drama. Mary Mott, honest widow and frontier innkeeper near the Gulf Coast; her 16-year-old son, Terrell; an itinerant, fiercely independent botanist named Edmund McGowan; and a small collection of soldiers in Santa Anna's army are among those whose lives are disrupted as factions within the rebellious Mexican state unite in the common cause of independence. In a serpentine plot that never runs dull, Harrigan traces the growing war fever, beginning in 1835, neatly avoiding political debate by presenting the various arguments plainly from each point of view. When Terrell runs away after an emotionally disturbed girl, who is pregnant with his child, commits suicide, his mother and McGowan follow after him. All three wind up in the Alamo and are caught in the futile and ill-conceived 1836 battle on the outskirts of San Antonio de B?xar. Faced with the formidable chore of handling such monumental legends as William Travis, James Bowie, David Crockett, Sam Houston and, of course, Santa Anna, Harrigan takes a judicious middle path, treating them respectfully but not smoothing over their flaws. Strict traditionalists may bridle at the deft ease with which Harrigan manipulates the bloody siege to allow a sentimental conclusion to his novel, and exacting historians may note his glossing of Mexican tactics in the final storming of the old mission, though the gore and guts of 19th-century combat are faithfully rendered. Yet Harrigan has crafted a compulsively readable historical drama on a grand scale, peopled with highly believable frontier personalities--Mexican as well as American--and suffused with period authenticity. 100,000 first printing; 11-city author tour. (Mar.)
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