Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Evolution of a State

    There's a saying goes, "I'm not from Texas, but I got here as fast as I could." It's not a saying that I can full on endorse, seeing as I was born and raised a Yankee and will always proudly claim that heritage. Still, there is a lot to love about Texas and, as second homes go, one could do worse.
    There is much to love about Texas. The food, for one, is amazing. Would you believe that I had never even heard of, let alone tasted, chicken fried steak until I moved to Texas? I've been a vegetarian for over 2 years now, and I still miss chicken fried steak. The music is also excellent. While I've never been a fan of most of what passes for country music on CMT, I have a strong affection for what is called "Texas country"; your Lyle Lovetts and Robert Keens and Townes Van Zandts. 
    But the thing that I love most about Texas is Texans. They can be a backward bunch, depending on location, but that's certainly not a stereotype that I've seen stick to most of the ones I know; which is to say, Governor Perry is the exception and not the rule. Some of them may share the same swagger and accent, but that's about where the similarities end. In my experience, Texans are a more tender and thoughtful people than our former President might lead you to believe.
    One of my favorite Texans is my good friend, Christopher Hoyt, of What Should Kester Read?: March Edition fame. He's full of vim and vigor, to be sure, but he's also proof that water don't have to run still to run deep. He and I have formed a sort of mutual admiration society and I figure if I get to liking him much more I'll have to have my mom adopt him or go ahead and adopt him myself. For two guys who don't share much in common in the way of looks or history, I am often struck by our sympatico. 
    One of our common loves is of a great story and of great storytellers. And there's no teller of tales like a Texan, for a Texan's tales tell taller than most. It was Chris who introduced me to the writings of Frank Dobie and Chris who assigned me two Texans for this month's reading list. One of them is an old favorite, Larry McMurtry. The other was new to me, Noah Smithwick.
    Smithwick's Evolution of A State: Recollections of Old Texas Days gives a history of 19th century Texas through the eyes of one who lived then and there. Moving to Texas in 1825 in response to the colonization act, Smithwick remained there for some time before living out his final days in California. Many of these final days were spent dictating his story to his daughter, and it reads just that way. Smithwick's Recollections give the feeling of sitting in a room with a weathered old Texan as he reminisces about yesteryear.
    Which is great, except when it isn't. First the great, which, for the most part, this book is. If Smithwick tells true (and other documentation seems to support that he does) than he was around for many of the major events in the early history of the state and knew many of the major players as well. To hear Texas history told by a man who knew Jim Bowie and Stephen F. Austin is to hear Texas history told right. Even the familiar stories feel new. And there are plenty of new stories as well.
    Which means that there are also plenty of stories that maybe didn't need telling. Which is the "when it isn't" part of the book. Sometimes Smithwick's stories read like "Texas Tales, Tall and True" and other times they read like the pointless ramblings of a fading old man. Oftentimes, I was engrossed in the story, but, just as oftentimes, I was skimming ahead to the next one.
    In the end, the reward of listening is that the great stories get through, if one is willing to be patient. They certainly do in Evolution of a State; patience is, more often than not, rewarded.
    So, whether you are a proud Texan or just "got here as fast as you could," if you like a good history or just a good story, whether you skim over the slow parts or measure out every word, I can highly recommend Noah Smithwick's Recollections of Old Texas Days as time well spent.

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