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Book Review

Page-Turner Revisits the Republic of Texas

THE BORDERLAND by Edwin Shrake; Hyperion $24.95, 416 pages

April 18, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Edwin Shrake's novel about the Republic of Texas in 1839 is a hearty pot of chili in which we can taste some south-of-the-border, magical-realist spices. A Mexican craftsman shapes a rosewood chair in which a person can "disappear," so perfectly does it fit the human form. A legendary man-ape dwells in a cave in Comanche country, guarding a treasure in Spanish gold and a "wisdom" that Native Americans seek to cope with their displacement by white settlers.

The meat of Shrake's recipe, though, derives from Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" and its sequels. Whether we call such stories "literary popular" or "popular literary," they combine a detailed and nuanced historical background with larger-than-life characters, so that they debunk and glorify the Old West at the same time.

The heroes of "The Borderlands," Capt. Matthew Caldwell and Dr. Romulus Swift, are of Hollywood dimensions. Caldwell is a Texas ranger, known as "Old Paint" because the shock of losing his wife and children in the war for independence spotted his black beard with white. Swift, a descendant of the author of "Gulliver's Travels," is a borderland all to himself: half-white, half-Cherokee, an Edinburgh-trained physician and a traditional healer, a deeply civilized man and a boxer who once killed an opponent in the ring "for the thrill of it."

The Cherokees, driven out of the Southeast on the Trail of Tears, have resettled in east Texas, promised security by President Sam Houston, who grew up among them. But Houston is out of office, and his successor, Mirabeau Lamar, is in league with land speculators who covet the Cherokees' undeeded holdings. Swift, who has had visions of the man-ape, wants to learn its wisdom to save his people. His sister, Cullasaja, comes to Texas with him because she prefers the old ways to New York high society.

Lamar is moving the republic's capital from Houston to the raw outpost of Austin, on the edge of Comanche territory. He wants Caldwell to negotiate a treaty with the tribe, renowned for its fierceness. Caldwell is the right man for the job. "Causing the death of another person is an interesting experience," he muses to Swift, ". . . and an experience I have never grown accustomed to, nor have I ever hesitated to do it--if I think it is the right thing to do."

Swift accompanies him. He has treated Fritz Gruber, a trader who stumbled out of the wilderness one day with bars of gold in his arms and part of a hatchet blade buried in his skull. Gruber claims that the man-ape saved him from the Comanches, and he has given Swift an idea of where the cave is.

Meanwhile, much has happened. One of Lamar's cronies, Henry Longfellow, slaveholder, killer, pervert and misogynist, has tried to rape Cullasaja. Swift has broken Longfellow's leg. Caldwell, on Lamar's orders, has tried to arrest Swift. Swift has broken the ranger's jaw, then healed him. Cullasaja has fallen in love with Caldwell. Swift has fallen in love with Hannah Dahlman, the bride Caldwell mail-ordered from Germany. Hannah has fallen in love with both men.

So Swift and Caldwell eye each other with suspicion as they ride into the hill country past the bones of Mexican soldiers (still prowling north of the Rio Grande despite their defeat at San Jacinto three years before) who have been massacred by the Comanches. Can our heroes prevent 2,000 warriors from burning and pillaging to the gulf, or will they kill each other first?

One thing for sure: Shrake has done his research. "The Borderlands" is a tall tale, but it's about Texas, where outsize characters have always abounded. A pungent and rib-sticking stew of refinement and squalor, courage and brutality, generosity and greed, romance and racism, this unabashed page-turner can't be too different from the way things really were.

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