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.
Leslie Lynnton falls in love with Texas, sight unseen, when a rancher who came to buy a horse from her father inspires her to sit up all night reading Texas history. A few weeks later, as Mrs. Jordan Benedict, she finds Texas isn’t at all what she expected, nor, for that matter, is her husband.
Leslie is sophisticated, cultured, politically liberal. Texans like her husband are red-necks by choice: Ivy-league educated but tumble-weed ignorant, champagne and caviar masquerading as hogs and hominy.
Jett Rink, a nasty ranch hand whom Bick has thrown off the ranch, strikes oil and the Benedict’s fortunes fall as Rink’s rise and the face of Texas changes.
The Benedict’s marriage is a rack on which Edna Ferber hangs her speculations about what makes Texans different from other people. Unfortunately, there’s not much to the book other than her speculations.
The plot is thin. Most of the characters have mere walk-on parts. Bick and Leslie, while well-drawn, aren’t engaging people. Leslie is too intellectual and arrogant, her husband too pragmatic and callous. It’s hard to care enough about them to keep reading. My advice: don’t bother.
And Tell of Time is the tale of a Texan, Cavin Darcy, who marries his Georgia cousin at the end of the Civil War and takes her to live on his farm on the Brazos. It takes over 30 years for Lucina to regard Texas as home.
Most of those years, Cavin is occupied with the political issues growing out of the North’s Reconstruction of the South. Lucina is responsible for running the house and the farm, teaching the children she bore and the orphans Cavin took in.
The background of And Tell of Time is much like that of Gone with the Wind. The white landowners suffer from laws that favor the blacks so the Northerners can exploit all Southerners, black and white.
But Laura Krey is no Margaret Mitchell, and Cavin and Lucina are pallid compared to Rhett and Scarlett. Cavin and Lucina are probably closer to real people, but they are not memorable figures.
There are so very many minor characters that it’s hard to keep track of them all. That difficulty is compounded by Krey’s omniscient narrator who skips around, producing a constantly-changing point of view.
All told, the novel is solid, but stolid.
And Tell of Time
by Laura Krey
Houghton Mifflin, 1938
# 3 bestseller of 1938