Copyright © Steven E. Alford
It's 1839, three years after the victorious battles that established the Republic of Texas. While its second president, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, broods and sweats in Houston city, eager citizens--war veterans and new arrivals alike--labor mightily to establish the new town of Austin, on the border of Comancheria, the Indian territory to the west. The Borderland follows the fortunes of this new Republic over a period of nine months, culminating in the battle at Plum Creek against the Comanches for the city of Austin.
At the center of the tale is Matthew Caldwell, bereaved widower, war veteran, Texas Ranger captain, and congressman. Fiercely independent, Caldwell is known by Anglos, Mexicans, and Indians throughout Texas for his honesty and skills as a warrior: "if Caldwell had a religion that he would sacrifice his life for, it was his belief in the Republic of Texas."
Given his religious devotion to Texas, Caldwell just hasn't had time for romance, and decides to contract for a mail-order bride. When the beautiful German Jew Hannah Dahlman arrives, she finds herself torn between Caldwell and another man, Romulus Swift. We know that before the book's end these two masculine forces of nature will clash, with the survivor walking off with Hannah as his prize.
The complications in these individuals' lives result from the turmoil that was the Republic of Texas. As first president, Cherokee-raised Sam Houston notes, "The whole United States is in a financial panic . . . Rabble are pouring across the Sabine. Every fool and thug and confidence man in the South is coming [to Texas] to find his fortune. . . . Mexican armies plunder our out-country and menace our cities, our government is bankrupt, the French and English and Dutch are looking for a justification to move in on us, and our president, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, is a liar, schemer, and dangerous man, and besides, he is a damn terrible poet."
The one thing that unites all the various characters is an obsession with land. The defeated Mexicans lick their wounds and plot their revenge. While the Indians-Comanches, Cherokees, and a dozen other nomadic tribes-have "the peculiar idea that nobody owns the ground they walk on," the Anglos contract from afar for vast stretches of acreage as if the Indians had no more rights than the buffalo. When pushed, these proud tribes push back, and Shrake skillfully plots their violent and bloody conflicts with the white invaders.
While described as a novel, this is more precisely an historical melodrama, with characters ranging from the monstrously misogynistic Henry Longfellow to the half-Cherokee Renaissance man Romulus Swift, whose protean skills and moral sensitivity would make Sidney Poitier look like a snarling reprobate. Grizzled men, lusty women, brawls, battles, and violent meteorological events-this is the sort of book for which clichés such as "epic historical canvas" are made.
The quest that brings Swift to Texas, along with his too-good-to-be-true sister (beautiful, erudite, caring) is to find something called the Third Wisdom. Swift eventually finds it, in a cave containing a Bigfoot-like creature, mountains of gold, and a razor-sharp scimitar! The wisdom, when revealed, strikes this head-scratching reader as something he needed to know yet already learned in kindergarten.
Despite characters that might give Tom Clancy pause for revision, and Shrake's apparent glee in rubbing the reader's nose is the gorier details of hand-to-Bowie-knife conflict, The Borderland entertains.
While one side of the reader's brain is maintaining a chart of the multiculturally correct array of characters--poor, honest Blacks; sleazy, limping land speculators; busty women with sex on their mind; servile Mexican peasants; a mincing homosexual hotel manager-the other half of one's brain is involved with a genuinely compelling yarn about the early history of the greatest state in the Union. For those with an interest in Texas history, but who want the dose to contain a spoonful of page-turning melodrama, Edwin Shrake's The Borderland can't be beat.