Texas: 450 years of history

A single-star Texas battle flag decorates the front cover of "Texas"
That’s the Texas battle flag

In Texas, James A. Michener varies his usual format for place-based historical novels: He sets Texas within a context of an imaginary task force whose job it is to decide what the state’s students learn about Texas history and how they should they learn it.

The task force allows Michener to present the history of the lone star state beginning with Spanish explorations in the 1500s up to the 1980s and to also provide commentary and interpretations of that history.

Michener clearly likes Texans, even when he dislikes some of the things they do.

Readers get Michener’s familiar history-by-the-eras formula with a unique Texas twist: Michener presents Texas as a state composed of seven state-sized, unique areas.

What makes Texas a state seems to be those areas’ sense of their superiority to any place that’s not Texas.

Texas is pure Michener: meticulously research, lyrically written, and almost flawlessly edited.

I can’t say that I liked the Texans I encountered in the pages of Texas, but I’m glad I read the novel.

It’s good preparation for understanding issues America is wrestling with today on its Southern border and elsewhere across the country: lack of water, climatic changes, and the need for migrant workers and the desire to restrict immigration.

Texas by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1985. 1096 p.
1985 bestseller #2; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Message from Málaga: Suspense for the cerebral

After a week of business related to his U.S. Space Agency job, Ian Ferrier stops in Málaga, Spain, to visit Jeff Reid. Ian and Jeff worked together eight years before, gathering evidence of Khrushchev’s rocket installations in Cuba.

Flamenco music, US flag and communist hammer-and-sickle are incorporated into art on dust jacket of Message from Malaga
Music, flamenco dancing, and politics mingle.

Now Jeff works for an American wine importer, and Ian’s current work entails scanning the skies for another Cuba-type crisis, this time satellite-based.

Jeff remembers Ian’s love of flamenco and takes him to see the local flamenco star, Tavita, dance.

Before the evening is over, Jeff meets a man claiming to be a defector from the assassination division of Cuba’s Foreign Intelligence Service. As he goes to alert his superiors to the defector’s demands, Jeff is the victim of a cyanide attack.

Barely alive when Ian finds him, Jeff confides in Ian, who becomes a de facto CIA agent when Jeff is assassinated.

Message shows why Helen MacInnes became known for “highly literate” spy novels. Readers must be as alert as the intelligence operatives. MacInnes’s story is tense but restrained. Readers seeking explosions and high-speed chases should look elsewhere.

So too should readers who want James Bond-ish sex romps. Ian appreciates beautiful women but he’s not going to risk his life to bed one.

Message from Málaga by Helen MacInnes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich [1971] 367 p.
1971 bestseller #6. My grade: B+

©2018 LINDA GORTON ARAGONI

The Captain from Castile finds love in a nasty era

The eponymous captain from Castile is Pedro de Vargus, a handsome young cavalier from a distinguished Spanish family of modest circumstances.

Pedro has taken Luisa de Carvajal as his lady, but the spirited serving wench Catana Perez has her sights on Pedro as well.


The Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger

Blakiston, 1945. 503 pages. 1945 bestseller # 8. My Grade: B.


Masts of replica of 16th century Spanish ship
The ship in which Pedro de Vargus sailed to Spain’s New World colonies probably looked much like this replica.

In 1518, Pedro sails for the Caribbean, followed soon by Cantana.

Hernando Cortes is raising an army to invade Mexico, contrary to the orders of the Spanish Governor of Cuba.

Pedro distinguishes himself in the campaigns to conquer, convert and loot the natives.

Cortes sends Pedro back to Spain to persuade the Crown to support further colonization. Pedro has trunks full of golden persuaders to use.

Pedro barely sets foot in Spain before he’s arrested.

He has to use his wits and his sword to save himself and his family, serve his General, and get the girl he truly loves.

Samuel Shellabarger keeps his focus on the story, refusing to make the novel into a history book. Without knowing a bit about 16th century history, however, readers will find it difficult to understand the plot.

The characters and general outline of this novel are romance staples. Its selling point is its setting: Shellabarger makes the Spanish Inquisition and Spain’s conquest of the Aztecs truly repugnant.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: The still photo is from a video of El Galeon, a 16th century replica Spanish sailing ship,  docked in New York Harbor.   The 2 minute video is at   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5U0CC4uxHQ

For Whom the Bell Tolls Goes Inside an Insurgency

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a gripping and thought-provoking look at war from the perspective of guerrilla fighters worn down by years of sniping.

The novel is about Robert Jordan, an American fighting  with the Communist International Brigades against fascists in Spain in the 1930s.  The freedom fighters are a handful of men and two women who have lost homes and families in the civil war.

Jordan is ordered to rally local freedom fighters to blow up a mountain bridge, timing the blast to cut off reinforcements when the communist attack elsewhere.  Jordan blows the bridge, but his superiors bundle the operation.

The novel’s plot feels familiar. You can easily imagine Tom Hanks playing Jordan. What isn’t familiar is the perspective.

The guerrillas aren’t sainted freedom fighters. Some who believed in The Cause are disillusioned. Some enjoy killing. Some seek power. Some have nothing else to do.

Hemingway’s prose is straightforward but not sparse. He shows the swiftness of death, the malingering  memories of killing and violence. His characters relive what they cannot forget, looking for absolution.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is worth rereading in a day when a half-dozen civil wars fester an almost every continent.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, 1940
#4 on the 1940 bestseller list
#5 on the 1941 bestseller list
My grade: A

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arrow of Gold‘s Too Heavy to Fy

The Arrow of Gold is presented as a manuscript written to a childhood friend by a sailor, “Monsieur George.”

Between voyages, M. George meets two men in Marseilles who introduce him to Dona Rita de Lastoala, a beauty who secures her curls with a golden arrow.

Rita was discovered by a painter who made his model and mistress. At his death, he left her his extensive art collections and fortune.

Rita’s family considers her a disgrace. Her ugly elder sister condescends to manage one of the houses Rita inherited and in which M. George lives when he’s not at sea.

Rita seduces M. George into gun-running to support Don Carlos de Bourbon’s 1870’s attempt to win the throne of Spain.

The novel seethes with political intrigue, lust, murder, and mayhem all politely covered by pages of talk. When Rita disappeared, I was just happy she shut up.

Joseph Conrad’s characters are complex in a literary fashion. They have to be studied rather than just observed.

Conrad’s plot is also more literary than lively. Readers must pay close attention (or read the book twice) to figure out what is happening.

Sadly, what’s happening isn’t worth the effort.

The Arrow of Gold
by Joseph Conrad
Doubleday, Page, 1919
Project Gutenberg ebook #1083
385 pages
My grade: B-
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The edge is off Cutlass Empire

During the 1600s, England, France, and Spain struggled for world domination. Intrigues in the European courts had effects around the globe. F. Van Wyck Mason takes readers back to that time with Cutlass Empire, a based on the true story of a privateer who became governor of Jamaica.

The novel is a swashbuckler whose swash has long since buckled.

Washed up — literally — on a Caribbean island, Harry watches helplessly as Spaniards torture and murder. Harry determines to get revenge and make his fortune doing it.

He takes commissions from the British or French to attack Spanish shipping. But land fighting, not sea battles, are Harry’s forte.

Seeing that England needs only control a few critical islands to keep Spain from exploiting all her New World possessions, Harry goes for the kill.

In 1670, he marches his ruffians across the Isthmus of Panama and captures Panama City — months after England and Spain have penned a peace treaty.

Harry’s brilliant campaign was a criminal act.

Mason has written an historical novel with emphasis on history. The plot feels threadbare. The main characters are shallow creatures from romance novels.

If Mason had attempted a narrower story, he might have achieved a far better novel.

Cutlass Empire
F. Van Wyck Mason
Doubleday, 1949
396 pages
1949 Bestseller # 8
My Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Golden Hawk Is a Turkey

The Golden Hawk is another bauble on Frank Yerby’s string of best-selling period romances. Yerby sets this one in the West Indies in the 1600s when human life was cheap and New World gold plentiful.

Bastard Kit Gerado, master of the pirate ship Seaflower, seeks a fortune plundering Spanish shipping. He longs for revenge on Spanish grandee Don Luis Del Toro, the man responsible for his mother’s death by torture.

Kit is a gorgeous, golden haired hunk: Errol Flynn with a bleach job. He has impeccable manners, unwavering loyalty, great compassion, enormous courage, and a Jewish sidekick, Bernardo, to provide the common sense Kit lacks.

On one of his plundering expeditions, Kit rescues Rouge, an English woman raped by Don Luis. Kit also captures Don Luis’s fiancé, Bianca, who falls for Kit, but he’s in love with Rouge. Which woman will win the Golden Hawk?

No mystery there. In fact, everything about this potboiler is totally predictable. The only surprise is that the novel is so sanitary. From the lurid dust cover, I expected a bodice-ripper, but Yerby’s most graphic details are his descriptions of mosquito bites.

Yerby does throw in some interesting historical tidbits, but not enough to rescue this banal novel from well-earned obscurity.

The Golden Hawk
By Frank Yerby
Dial Press , 1948
312 pages
Bestseller # 6 for 1948
My Grade: D+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni