Many of you will be familiar with author John Steinbeck’s statement, Texas is a state of mind, something felt rather than articulated, which certainly applies to my feelings about the place I’ve called home for fifty-four years… 1966-2020. Moreover, should you count my years as an adolescent living in San Antonio from 1952-1960 (I was three when my Dad got assigned to Headquarters, 4th U.S. Army, and I attended school at Fort Sam Houston, Texas from kindergarten through the fifth grade) it adds up to sixty-two years that I’ve claimed the Lone Star State as my own.
Because of my inability to adequately explain what it is about Texas that I love, I find myself periodically reading books by authors far more gifted than I at expressing their observations and thoughts on the mystique that separates Texas from all other states. For example, it was almost on this exact same date two years ago that I wrote a review of the book God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright (see my previous blog post dated Jul 5, 2018) which was actually being researched and written at the same time that Stephen Harrigan was compiling his history of Texas, Big Wonderful Thing. The two men happen to be friends and visited some of the same historical sites together.
However, Harrigan’s book is encyclopedic compared to Wright’s; at 925 pages (829 if you exclude the Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography, and Index) it is massive in scope, yet surprisingly readable. History is often nothing more than dates, historical figures and events; dry and boring. Harrigan blends these same elements of history with great storytelling, so the only real issue I had with the book was the difficulty I had holding it up to read!
Meticulously researched, Big Wonderful Thing is informative, educational, and entertaining. It spans the years 1528 to the present, but rather than a strict chronological record it uses anecdotal information and individual stories of people and events – not just those that are well known, but obscure men and women and their involvement in moments that shaped the progression and evolution of Texas.
The portrayal goes well beyond the myths about Texas that as a child I learned in school. The reality is far more complex, and Harrigan deftly blends factual material with his abilities as a novelist to engage readers in the small details and stories that give context to the larger picture. Some author bias is inevitable in the telling of these stories, but on the whole it is a notable literary achievement.
The title of the book comes from a quote by the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe: I couldn’t believe Texas was real… the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.
Certainly Texas, with all of its faults, complexities, and contradictions has achieved singular elevated status (for better or worse) among the fifty states that comprise our Union, and Stephen Harrigan has given us a worthy rendering of its history that compares favorably and even exceeds that previously attempted by other historians and authors. It is the type of history book that you can literally open to any chapter and find enjoyment in learning something new about Texas or adding to the knowledge that you already had.
I highly recommend Big Wonderful Thing.