Temples and Playgrounds

Previewing the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Nov. 3-4

Temples and Playgrounds

Custer's Brother's Horse

by Edwin Shrake
John M. Hardy Publishing, 320 pp., $24.95

That Edwin "Bud" Shrake knows his way around a screenplay is evident in his latest novel. The action in this Western from the guy who wrote overlooked gems of the screen like Kid Blue is set in the waning days of the Civil War. Confederate Jerod Robin is chained and waiting to be hanged on trumped-up charges based primarily on a long family feud with the Leatherwood clan, who have sided with the Yankees and are now in charge. Robin soon finds himself chained to another doomed man, a saucy Brit writer named Edmund Varney, who is accused of stealing a beautiful horse belonging to Tom Custer, the brother of you know who, but who claims the magical horse is actually his. Throw in a black teenage fortune-teller, who knows who will die next, put the three on the run in Central Texas, and you have the story's basic plot in motion.

It's a chase story, but with a rather leisurely pace that bogs down in places in the book's midsection. Shrake has shown a fascination with 19th century Texas in previous works like Blessed McGill and The Borderland, and much of the joy of this read is sinking into the sights, smells, and attitudes of the era. His 10th novel isn't his best – reserve that spot for either Blessed McGill or the goofier Strange Peaches – but it shows a writer who still knows how to spin a good yarn.

Indeed, if the reader can hold on until the end, a treat is in store. The last hundred pages are worth the wait, as Shrake the virtuoso shows up and takes the story in interesting directions. We get little jabs at clueless politicians who start foolish wars, as shown through a senator winkingly named Bushkin. And we are served some meaty takes on religion, everything from Sikhism to hardcore, gun-toting Christianity. The latter comes from Pastor Horry Leatherwood, perhaps the novel's most nuanced character. First portrayed as pure evil wrapped in a Bible coating, Horry instead reveals himself to be an odd mix of Old West hardness, greed, and pure charity.


Getting Even: The Literature of Revenge
With Christopher Kelly, Shalom Auslander, and Jeff Abbott
Saturday, Nov. 3, 11am
Capitol Extension Room E2.012

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