The Son

Philipp Meyer

Summer Fiction, Summer Not

The Son

by Philipp Meyer
Ecco, 576 pp., $27.99 (May 28)

With a back cover trumpeting its similarities to Lonesome Dove, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Son plans to tread some well-worn Western ground. But Philipp Meyer – author of 2010's American Rust – has something more unusual in mind here.

When 13-year-old Eli McCul­lough's family is slaughtered in a Comanche raid, he's kidnapped and taken to live among the people who raped and mutilated his family. Enslaved and then assimilated, Eli comes to love his Comanche family and, after years, can't fathom another way of life – until a disastrous turn of events forces his return to white society.

Eli's story, as he rises to power on the violent frontier, would be enough to sustain this sizeable tome. But Meyer also shifts through time, giving us glimpses of the McCullough descendants who are reaping the harvest of Eli's towering ambition. While the interweaving of stories is not consistently successful (the pacing can lag when we leave Eli's perspective; some sections struggle to cover large swaths of time), the payoff is a vivid, unflinching look at the peoples who struggled to conquer Texas, and one another.

The best scenes conjure up the past with such specificity and depth of detail that you can smell the cooking fires burning. And Mey­er's done his homework with the research here (beware the faint of heart: You'll get more than you perhaps wanted to know about scalping techniques or the uses of buffalo bile as a condiment). For all its delving into human relationships, this is a book that aspires to take us higher, to reveal more. Imagine an aerial view of Texas, in which hidden elements of a huge, breathtaking landscape are suddenly made clear.

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