Book Review: Daughter of Texas, by Celia Hayes

This is the latest historical novel by our blogfriend Sgt Mom, set in the era of the Texas Revolution. You can get it here.

Margaret Becker comes from Pennsylvania to Texas at the age of 12, along with her two brothers, her mother, and her father (a man so difficult that he antagonizes everyone he meets, up through and including Stephen Austin–indeed, the reader may feel a strong desire to reach through the pages and strangle him.) Margaret herself is competent and practical-minded, also a keen observer who likes to reflect on things. Here’s Margaret sitting on the porch of their new house in Texas and remembering an evening back in Philadelphia:

A few swifts darted after invisible flying insects, dark shadows flashing against an indigo-dark sky. The chorus of crickets singing, invisible in the growing twilight, accompanied the slow unveiling of the stars. When she was very small, about the age of Carl, Margaret thought that the crickets’ song was the sound of the stars as they wheeled in the sky, the creaking of the tiny gears that moved the stars. At church, they had talked of the music of the spheres, and Margaret had once been sure that was what she heard. It was only logical, since the stars and the crickets’ song appeared together in the evening.

When Margaret is about 17, she marries the local schoolmaster, Horace (“Race”) Vining, who has come from Boston to a warmer climate at least in part because of his health problems; his intellectual and political interests, combined with his wide circle of friends, give her an good opportunity to observe the historic events now in their formative stages.

Anglo settlers had originally been eagerly sought by the Mexican government, which then ruled Texas, but tensions grew rapidly under the centralizing rule of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Resentment of Santa Anna’s policies was not limited to Anglos or indeed to Texas–rebellions broke out in several Mexican states, notably Zacatecas, and were suppressed with considerable brutality. In Texas itself, several prominent Mexicans (Tejanos) were among those seeking a more decentralized and liberalized government. Margaret meets several of these men, and although she would not have been expected to participate in the discussions, she is a keen listener and observer:

At other times, friends came to visit; Esteban Menchaca rode in from San Antonio with his brother and their friend Juan Seguin who was tall and courtly in the Spanish fashion, the son of the Alcade of Bexar, but who also shared the same political leanings. They desired to see Mexico as a federation of states, each more or less self-governing; indeed Esteban and Juan, and men like the neighboring entrepreneur Don Martin de Leon at Victoria, all hoped that Texas would soon form a separate state from Coahuila, with a provincial capital at Bexar instead of Monclova. They would stay up very late at night talking of this, of politics and history, of the natural rights of man and the lawful obligations of a government.

Margaret also meets the famous/infamous Jim Bowie:

He was dressed in Mexican-style coat and trousers, a monstrously large sheathed hunting knife thrust through the silk sash at his waist…”I am honored to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” he said simply. His hands were very strong; looking down at them, Margaret noticed that they were knotted with old injuries and seamed with scars, as if he had often used his fists. He was not handsome, she thought, until she looked up into his eyes and felt something of a magnetic sense of attraction. That evening, she sat in the corner as was her habit, listening to the men converse; now and again her eyes went to Senor Bouey, whom the other men addressed familiarly as Jaime or James. There was something in him which drew their regard and hers as well, with the irresistible force of a needle pointing towards a lump of iron. She looked towards him and was utterly taken back when he met her gaze so boldly that it was almost as if he was touching her–touching her in a way that only Race had a right to do.

When war breaks out, most of the men Margaret knows join the various volunteer groups, some of them to fortify and hold the makeshift fortress of the Alamo. Her brothers Rudi and Carl also join up; her husband, although his health prevents full military service, becomes a courier for the Texas forces.

Here is Susanna Dickenson, who was at the Alamo with her husband, returning after Santa Anna’s victory and his executions of the surviving surviving defenders:

Only when the horseback party came closer did Margaret know for sure that the woman was Susanna. All the mischievous gaiety and liveliness in her had been quenched, her face as ashen as the grey-powdered coals of a fire long dead. Her hair hung lank and uncombed, straggling around her face. She stared straight ahead, as if she had no energy or mind to do anything else…Her knees buckled momentarily, and then she stood straight, the skirts of her dress just brushing the tops of her shoes. Margaret noticed that the hem of it was dabbled and edged almost all the way around with rust-colored mud, as if Sue had waded through a puddle and allowed her skirt to drag. The stains were the color of dried blood. Then she realized, with horror–they were indeed bloodstains.

The advance of the Mexican Army requires Margaret and other members of her village to burn their homes and flee northwards, a difficult journey that the author describes vividly:

Now and again, they saw columns of grey and black smoke rising on the horizon–the clear signs of other homes and farmsteads put to the torch–and another straggle of women and children came to join them, with carts and wagons haphazardly packed and hitched to winter-thin and scraggly animals. Panic was in the air, the smell of it stronger than that of the trampled grass, or the scent of rain borne on the light wind, a rain that soon pelted down upon them, in ice-cold drops. Their feet sank to the ankles in the churned mud. Yet they must plod onward, ducking their faces against the driving rain.

During this exodus, Margaret and her family are greatly assisted by Hurst, a slave belonging to another Texas family. Being from Pennsylvania and from a family of immigrants, Margaret does not share the pro-slavery beliefs common among white Texans of that era. (And not only white Texans–many Tejanos of the constitutionalism and decentralization movement also favored slavery, which was then against Mexican law…although it seems most unlikely that Santa Anna was really concerned with human liberation in any form–as part of their plan to increase cotton-growing in the state.) The paradox of slave-owners fighting for liberty (even slave-traders, as in the case of Jim Bowie) existed in 1836 as it had in 1776.

Daughter of Texas ends a few years after the revolutionaries triumph at the Battle of San Jacinto, at a time when the settlement of Waterloo, newly renamed Austin, is starting to become a real city:

No, it was not such a grand place as Boston or any of the long-established cities back east which Race recalled to her and the boys. This city, whose avenues and noble facades would spread over what had been her father’s fields and pastures, was still new and raw. The grand avenue was a muddy expanse, frequented by many pigs wallowing in the deeper puddles, through which heavy wagons and horsemen threaded their way. It heartened Margaret to think of all that had been accomplished in a few years, and what would be done in the future. At the same time she was rather saddened to think of all those glades of trees where Rudi and Carl had hunted for deer and gathered pecans, being cut down and made into houses. New people coming to Austin would never know how beautiful it was when the Beckers first settled, and when Margaret and Race and the children had come back after the war. No latecomer would ever recall how in the mornings the mist rose from the river and twined itself around the hills and trees, and the sun came up and turned all to pearl, while every leaf edge glittered as if trimmed with tiny diamonds.

I was very pleased to see that a sequel is planned: Deep in the Heart is scheduled to be available in December 2011.

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot both from the book itself and from the additional reading and video-watching which it inspired. As the author says about the Alamo in her end notes:

No matter what construction can be put on the characters and motivation of those involved, their decision to remain and hold out against an overwhelming force, in a crumbling mission compound which they had been urged over and over again to leave–it resonates. Whether the stand at the Alamo was for ideas or friendship, patriotism or simply personal pride, that is the stuff of which legends have been made since the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Daughter of Texas helps in understanding the context of the Alamo story and the Texas independence movement as a whole, and does so in an interesting and very readable way. Recommended. Again, you can get it here in either electronic or paperback format.

(Disclosure: the author sent me a review copy of this book.)

3 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>Daughter of Texas</em>, by Celia Hayes”

  1. Thanks, David – I’m glad you liked it enouch to write an extensive review! I really tried very hard to put the Alamo into perspective – and the whole Texas independence thing. There was so much more too it all than just what is seen in the movies.

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