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'Big Wonderful Thing' Sets Us Straight On Texas, Moving Away From The Mythology

It's hard to think of another writer with as much Lone Star credibility as Stephen Harrigan. The Austin-based writer contributed to Texas Monthly magazine for decades, and his best-known book, The Gates of the Alamo, is widely considered to be the best novel about the epic battle ever written.

Harrigan, essentially, is to Texas literature what Willie Nelson is to Texas music.

And his latest book might just be the one he was born to write. Big Wonderful Thing, a sprawling history of the Lone Star state, showcases Harrigan's enthusiasm for Texas ⁠— it's an endlessly fascinating look at how the state has evolved over the years.

Texans have long been obsessed by the size of their state (don't even think of mentioning Alaska down here), so it's no surprise that Harrigan's book is a long one, clocking in at just under 1,000 pages. It begins with a look at Big Tex, the 52-ft.-tall mascot of the Texas State Fair that caught fire in 2012. The statue's replacement, Harrigan writes, "was sort of a joke in the way the old one never had been. ... [I]t was no longer possible for a single image ⁠— that of a waving, welcoming cowboy ⁠— to truly evoke the heaving twenty-first-century mix of cultural allegiances that Texas had become."

Harrigan takes a deep dive into the Texas of the past, starting with the Native Americans who called the state home before the 16th-century arrival of European explorers, including René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who was "arrogant, autocratic, and so inscrutable that he was judged by some to be insane." He does an excellent job exploring the dynamics between the Spanish and French settlers and the indigenous people ⁠— Apaches, Comanches and others ⁠— who took exception to having their homeland colonized.

Much of the mythology that surrounds Texas comes from the 19th century, and Harrigan writes about that era of history with clear eyes, careful to explain that some of the stories young Texans are taught about their state aren't strictly true. On Jane Long, often called "the Mother of Texas" because she allegedly gave birth to the first Anglo baby in the state, Harrigan writes:

And on the legendary Alamo, he notes:

Past histories of Texas have focused heavily on the accomplishments, both real and legendary, of white men. But Harrigan, thankfully, doesn't forget the wide range of people that made Texas what it is. The book contains fascinating profiles of the state's first woman governor, Miriam Ferguson; attorney Sarah Weddington, who successfully argued Roe v. Wade to the U.S. Supreme Court; and Emma Tenayuca, the pioneering San Antonio labor activist.

Harrigan also pays special attention to Texas' contribution to the arts. He covers two of the state's most legendary blues musicians, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lead Belly, both of whom died young, and, of course, country-western mainstay Willie Nelson, who first performed at the age of five, "standing on a flatbed truck at a family picnic a few miles outside [Abbott, Texas] and reciting a poem that he had written himself." Harrigan also displays a special fondness for artist Georgia O'Keeffe, who once lived in the Texas town of Canyon and was inspired by the state's "chromatic wonderland of geology." (The title of Big Wonderful Thing is taken from one of O'Keeffe's descriptions of the state.)

Books as long as Big Wonderful Thing can often seem intimidating rather than inviting, but Harrigan's book is so beautifully written, it actually leaves the reader wanting more. It's clear that he loves the state, but he's refreshingly unwilling to perpetuate the mythology that's built up around it — the truth, he seems to argue, is much more interesting than the apocryphal stories that have persisted for decades.

And he's right. Texas is an incredibly fascinating state — and Harrigan, who recognizes that the state's diversity is what makes it great, truly does it justice. Endlessly readable and written with great care, Big Wonderful Thing is just that.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.