Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas Lives Up to Its Title
Stephen Harrigan chronicles the Lone Star State’s last 500 years
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 28, 2020
A history of Texas is not something that should be entered into inadvisedly – not by a reader, certainly not by a writer. The subject is too expansive, its cast of characters too extensive. You're faced with too much ground to cover, too many sins committed, too much blood spilled, too much treasure found and lost, too much courage, too much beauty, too much music. The immensity of it all can pull you down until you're sunk.
That said, the Lone Star State is always in need of a good history, one that doesn't wrap itself in the boosterism of our anthemic State Song, all grandeur and glory; one that provides more dimension and depth than the course force-fed to seventh graders like unappetizing school-cafeteria Salisbury steak. We need a history that dials down the mythologies of the white settlers and cowboys conquering this vast land, of the Alamo and the Republic, of the heroes we've always talked about, and dials up the stories of the peoples on this land when those white settlers arrived, of achievements made on other fronts – Science! Art! Equity! – that have also shaped Texas, of the heroes we never talk about. We need a history that shows when that inextinguishable pride that fuels Texans has been justified and when it's been horribly misplaced.
Happily for us, Stephen Harrigan has supplied such a history in Big Wonderful Thing. His fresh take on the Lone Star saga – commissioned by the University of Texas Press as the flagship volume in its ambitious Texas Bookshelf series – spans the last five centuries and takes pains to include in its chronicle of that time many, many remarkable people rarely given a mention, much less their due, in histories of Texas. Here are the Karankawas, the Caddos, the Comanches, the Kiowas, the Apaches, the Jumanos, and other indigenous peoples, given their distinctive characters, beliefs, and ways of life. Here's José Antonio Navarro, the Tejano patriot and politician who ensured that the Texas Constitution didn't restrict voting rights to whites only. Here's Lizzie Johnson Williams, the schoolteacher, short-story writer, and no-nonsense cattle queen who was known to accompany the cowpokes and her herd up the Chisholm Trail. Here are Henry Smith of Paris and Jesse Washington of Waco, young black men murdered in their respective towns in public lynchings as horrific as any imaginable. Here's Minnie Fisher Cunningham, ardent fighter for women's rights and first woman to run for the U.S. Senate. Here are Bessie Coleman and Katherine Stinson, women making aviation firsts in the 1910s and 1920s. Here's Emma Tenayuca, labor organizer for Mexican American workers. Here's Old Rip, celebrated "horny toad" of Eastland County, who allegedly survived 30 years bricked up in its courthouse cornerstone. And here are several figures whose names are visible around Austin: boardinghouse proprietor and impromptu cannoneer Angelina Eberly; author and newspaperman William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry; sculptor extraordinaire Elisabet Ney; civil rights pioneer Heman Sweatt; hero of Pearl Harbor Doris Miller; and hero of Watergate Barbara Jordan. Harrigan vividly describes why each matters in Texas' sprawling story.
Oh, yes, the usual suspects are here, too – Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, Travis, Bowie, Davy Crockett, LBJ – just not on the Olympian scale preferred by traditionalists and Hollywood. Harrigan looks at such legends from angles that make plain their humanity, that show them not as giants marching to their destiny, but as people of their place and time, making decisions – sometimes very consequential decisions – with no clear view of the outcome. Considering the overwhelming nature of Texas history – how much there is and that "too-muchness" of every aspect – there's an admirable consistency to the way the story's told here. Every life is made personal with details and then connected to other lives or parts of the story, so that the history flows through individuals, those familiar and those unfamiliar, who together form a grand parade across this wilderness, this territory, this colony, this country, this state.
Here's Santa Anna first playing a supporting role as a 19-year-old lieutenant in the Spanish royalist army at the Battle of Medina before his star part two decades later at the Alamo and San Jacinto. Here's Navarro at Washington-on-the-Brazos signing the Texas Declaration of Independence, then reappearing as an elected representative to the Texas House. Here's Rip Ford, first a doctor and Indian fighter notifying parents that their sons had died fighting Mexico, later a Texas Ranger charged with quelling border disputes, then a Confederate cavalry officer leading the final battle in the Civil War. Here's hillbilly bandleader W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel singing his way into the governor's office, then later stealing a U.S. Senate seat from a young Lyndon Johnson, himself returning in, well, a few significant roles through the years.
Here's Harrigan, too, weaving through the Texas narrative he's relating: at age 7 in 1955, seeing Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier at the Paramount Theater in Abilene; in seventh grade in 1960, being let out of school in Corpus Christi to see John Wayne's new movie The Alamo; in 1978, diving with archaeologists in Matagorda Bay, seeking sunken vessels from La Salle's expedition; following the Mission Trail out of El Paso; touring the Port of Houston on the ship Sam Houston; visiting George W. Bush's childhood home in Midland and being with Bush the night of the 2000 presidential election; and just being "at large in Texas in the best way a Texan can be: driving aimlessly, indulging in random thoughts while listening to a self-selected Lone Star playlist."
Part of what makes this history of Texas special is that Harrigan doesn't separate himself from his subject. Texas is his home; his history is bound up in its history. He has spent his career as a journalist uncovering the state's stories – discovering the state, really – and the curiosity that has fueled his writing, as both reporter and novelist, keeps him searching the state, poring over it, for stories, more and more stories, stories he can share. So in Big Wonderful Thing, he gives us a Texas as he is still discovering it.
Moreover, Harrigan is still open to the wonders of Texas. People who see a copy of Big Wonderful Thing will instantly note how the title can be applied to the book itself: At 944 pages and 3.8 pounds, it is a big thing. But what you won't grasp until you're between its covers, immersed in its stories, is how it's also very much a wonderful thing – and that's "wonderful" in the sense I believe Georgia O'Keeffe meant it in the quote from which Harrigan takes his title: full of wonders. Harrigan tells us about Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, the 17th-century nun who told of times she had been simultaneously in Spain and in Texas visiting native tribes – a claim corroborated by the Jumanos, who told friars they were visited hundreds of times by the "Lady in Blue" who spoke of Christ. He writes of Palo Duro Canyon as "the most startling geographic feature of the High Plains," one that "attacks the eye with its suddenness, as if the unmarked surface of the llano had just been savagely ripped apart." Throughout Big Wonderful Thing, Harrigan's sense of wonder is infectious, leading the reader to see the state with fresh eyes, to see its landscape and the people on it as deserving of their reputation as outsized in every respect, larger than life. You get why everything is bigger in Texas.
But don't mistake the author's palpable passion for, it appears, all things Texan or this prodigious tome into which he's poured so much of his deep-rooted feeling for, knowledge about, and understanding of the state for Big Wonderful Thing being the final word on Texas history. Harrigan doesn't pretend he's slapping a period on the end of Texas' story. The book ends with him on an epic road trip around the state, visiting spots he loves or wants to see: the JA ranch built by Charles and Molly Goodnight and John and Cornelia Adair in the Panhandle, a prairie dog town in Lubbock, the house where Georgia O'Keeffe once lived in Canyon, Larry McMurtry's bookstore in Archer City, the storied electric chair Old Sparky in Huntsville's Texas Prison Museum, one of the Fayette County painted churches, a tree still standing on what was once the Camino Real. But then Harrigan winds up talking about other places he wishes he could visit or revisit as a way of putting a pin in the six-year project of writing the book. We can see that Harrigan is all too conscious of his limitations, that his arms can't wrap around everything this state is about as much as he wishes they could.
For a man writing about a place known for its braggadocio, he's showing admirable modesty. But then, that's evident just from the cover, where Harrigan has refrained from using the definitive article in the subtitle to his book: Big Wonderful Thing is simply a history of Texas. It's his way of turning the reins back over to us, to fill in the spaces he didn't or couldn't, to bring forward more heroes that we haven't yet talked about. He's had his say. Now it's time for our history of Texas.
Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texasby Stephen Harrigan
University of Texas Press, 944 pp., $35