Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Best Little Book About Texas

Most people think that the best books about Texas were written by Larry McMurtry. Some folks who are not from Texas will even mention Edna Ferber (“Giant”). Those who are serious about Texas will look to the works of J. Frank Dobie, Elmer Kelton, Walter Prescott Webb, A.C. Green and T.R. Fehrenbach. And there are dozens of other great Texas writers. I’ve read some of all of them and all of McMurtry. I like the movie “Giant”. But the book, not-so-much. Ferber’s portrayal of Texas and Texans is just way too over-the-top and it comes across the same way in the movie. Entertaining yes, but not all that much like the real Texas.

McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” is near the top of my favorite books list and the television mini-series is the best I ever saw. One of his earlier books, “Horseman Pass By”, is a decent work that was the basis for the outstanding movie “Hud”. “The Last Picture Show is a good read and a better movie. “Terms of Endearment” is a fine novel and an excellent movie that just happened to have something to do with Texas. It wasn’t really about Texas and the setting could just as easily have been in Florida or Georgia or California. However, I still like most of McMurtry’s work and his portrayals of Texas and Texans are pretty much spot on.

But for my money, the best book ever written about Texas is John Graves’ “Goodbye To A River” (1960). John Graves passed away last week at the age of 92. Google John Graves + “Goodbye To A River” and you will find numerous articles and tributes to the writer and to the book. He was special and this book is special. Most of us at one time or another have read a book or heard a song or gazed at a painting and said to ourselves, “That’s how I feel” or “That’s what I see” or “That is the truth”. When I read “Goodbye To A River”, I say all of those things. It hits close to home. Like me, John Graves is from Fort Worth. Like me, he had uncles and relatives who introduced him to life away from the city. And like me, much of that time was spent on the Brazos River. The same section of the river he writes about in his book is one where I spent much of my youth. The people he writes about could easily be my kinfolk. And he ties Texas history into every bend in the river and beyond. While I cannot claim to be from that place, my parents and their parents and the family tree on back into the mid-1800’s are from that place. So in many ways that place and those people are mine.

“Goodbye To A River” is the only book, other than the Bible, that I read over and over. It reminds me of what my ancestors went through and how hard their lives were. It humbles me and keeps me from feeling sorry for myself when I am tired or stressed out. It inspires me to value all of God’s creation. It reflects both the sacredness and fickleness of life. It tells me that all people and all places count, no matter how small. It allows me to see things as they were and perhaps even as they are. For me, the best little book about Texas is also one of the best ones ever written about life.

“If a man couldn't escape what he came from, we would most of us still be peasants in Old World hovels. But, if, having escaped or not, he wants in some way to know himself, define himself, and tries to do it without taking into account the thing he came from, he is writing without any ink in his pen. The provincial who cultivates only his roots is in peril, potato-like, of becoming more root than plant. The man who cuts his roots away and denies that they were ever connected with him withers into half a man.”
― John Graves, Goodbye to a River: A Narrative

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