Families are the bedrock of Texas settlement. Take, for instance, the Old Three Hundred, the first white migrants who came to Texas from the American South in the 1820s, lured by the colonization schemes of Moses and Stephen F. Austin; nearly two centuries later, their descendants meet twice a year to celebrate this shared history. Likewise, many Texans of more recent vintage engage in one-upmanship over the depth of their roots in the Lone Star State, all in a quest to bind themselves as tightly as possible to the land and its myths.
Journalists Roger D. Hodge and Bryan Mealer would make formidable opponents for any challengers looking to compare such Texas bona fides. Both are descended from Southern families who arrived here during the nineteenth century and settled in rural areas that remain so even today, earning their livelihoods in ranching and oil, the state’s most iconic industries. And both rely on their intimate knowledge of Texas to plumb its darkest reaches. In his new book, Texas Blood: Seven Generations Among the Outlaws, Ranchers, Indians, Missionaries, Soldiers, and Smugglers of the Borderlands (Knopf, 2017), Hodge uses his family as a vehicle for exploring the state’s violent past and present. Mealer, in The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream (Flatiron Books, February 6), drills down into four generations of his ancestors to understand one especially ruinous decision made by his father. In tandem, Texas Blood and The Kings of Big Spring offer a searing portrait of Texas as a land of opportunity but one that extracts a heavy price.
Hodge, deputy editor of the Intercept, began working on Texas Blood shortly after he was fired from his job as editor of Harper’s Magazine, in 2010. With time on his hands, he made several trips to his home country, near Del Rio, which he had left—“forever,” he writes—when he went away to college, in 1985. Three decades later, his ambivalence remains palpable: he is clearly fascinated by Texas but repelled by its casual prejudice, false piety, and receding authenticity. On one of those visits home, it struck him how little he knew about his birthplace and why his paternal ancestors had chosen to settle there. After looking for answers in a range of published sources, Hodge concluded that “the official story of Texas is not false, but there is another Texas, every bit as violent but perhaps more tragic and thus far more interesting.” Texas Blood is his version of that tale.
Given the wide lens he employs in his writing, individual family members rarely come into sharp focus. But there are exceptions, such as his blithe, nonagenarian grandmother Anale, who appears in one of the book’s many photographs, firing a .22 rifle while wearing a kerchief “knotted below her chin, to protect her hair, carefully permed and set.” Otherwise, Hodge offers mere glimpses of his ancestors in order to craft his larger narrative, which loops around in unexpected ways. His search for a great-granduncle’s cinnabar mine in the Big Bend region thus leads to a retelling of the Spanish entrada of the sixteenth century and the ensuing conflict with native peoples. Likewise, a visit to Clay County, the site of an early cattle ranch belonging to his great-great-great-grandfather, prompts a consideration of the many travelers—drovers, stagecoach passengers, the U.S. Army—who crisscrossed the state in the nineteenth century.
Above all, it is our southern border that preoccupies Hodge, for its caprice, its coincident ability to divide and unite, and its endless cycles of brutality. His reflections conjure those of another South Texas writer, Gloria Anzaldúa, who wrote memorably that “the U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture.”
To be sure, there is blood. As Hodge explains, one of the formative events of his youth was the 1984 abduction and murder of U.S. Customs inspector Richard Latham, a close family friend, who was snatched from the international bridge in Del Rio by thieves fleeing a jewelry heist in Mexico. That haunting incident has bred in Hodge a sharp curiosity about the region’s intensifying militarization, which he finds inevitable but ineffective. This tension is captured in evocative passages about Hodge being stopped by the Border Patrol while tracking a surveillance blimp, or chatting with a federal official about BigPipe, a massive data-gathering network that blankets the border with surveillance equipment (and sounds ripe for Orwellian misapplications).
Such efforts to control the borderlands will come to naught, Hodge implies, since the region resists division by distant authorities. Moreover, as indicated by pictographs left on cliff faces by ancient people, power is fleeting in this unpredictable and unforgiving place. This is the sobering lesson that Hodge draws from his own family history: in the grand scheme of things, the Hodges are merely passing through, and if lucky, some remnant—a ranch house, maybe only a fence post—will serve as a reminder of their brief time on the land.
If readers catch only blurry glimpses of Hodge’s ancestors, Mealer’s relatives are fully realized, as he lays bare more than a century of his family’s colorful but often painful history. As Mealer explains, his book began with a phone call from his father in 2011, summoning him back to Texas from New York to visit his dying grandmother. At her bedside, he and his relatives obliged a wish “to sing her home,” a moving experience that, after her death, spurred him to dig into the Mealer past, starting with his great-grandfather John Lewis Mealer, who fled Georgia in 1892—a crackdown on moonshiners left him without work—for Texas, where he scratched out a living as a dryland farmer, buffeted by catastrophic droughts and weevil infestations. In time, the Mealers found their way to Big Spring, home to a series of petroleum strikes that were part of the 1920s oil boom in the Permian Basin. For most of the next six decades, they orbited the town like a satellite.
The Mealers, however, cursed perhaps by what the family calls the Mealer Luck, remain forever on the outside of the bonanza. Instead, Mealer men found work in the petroleum industry’s toughest jobs, like the author’s granduncle Bud, who drove a truck for the Shell Pipeline Company. Bud suffered an agonizing death from pneumonia in 1936, after remaining outside during an epic dust storm, determined to finish working on his Ford. All the while, the Mealers look on as a lucky few amass staggering fortunes.
Mealer is the author or co-author of three previous books, including the bestselling The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. The Kings of Big Spring seems destined to reach a wide audience as well, thanks to Mealer’s rollicking prose style and especially his impeccable timing: the book has already drawn favorable notices for its candid portrayal of the white working class, the constituency that supposedly delivered Donald Trump to the White House. Nevertheless, Mealer’s book feels at times overgrown, weighed down by too many branches on the family tree, each one leafing out with stories of heartache, sexual abuse, drug addiction, or just plain bad decisions. Even the most sympathetic reader may become inured to the miseries endured by this likable but luckless clan. Often, Mealer’s dogged focus on his ancestors crowds out the world beyond, so that events taking place elsewhere in the United States barely register, lending the narrative an occasionally claustrophobic feel.
But these shortcomings are more than offset by the book’s second half, when Mealer turns at last to the main character in his story, his own father, Bobby. In 1981, having settled with his family in the Houston area, Bobby is pulled back to Big Spring by a can’t-miss chance to strike it rich. Mealer’s recounting of the predictably catastrophic outcome is frank, compassionate, and often hilarious.
Taken together, Texas Blood and The Kings of Big Spring remind us why the Lone Star State has long proved an irresistible draw, especially for those looking to improve their fortunes; as Mealer explains, “Only in Texas was there enough space for so many second acts.” And the Hodges and Mealers have both enjoyed good runs onstage, underwritten by the state’s natural bounty. But the histories of both families can also be read as ledgers accounting for the costs of ambition, usually borne by other people or the land itself. If Mealer, who has recently moved back to Texas—to Austin, though, not Big Spring—seems optimistic that the past can be redeemed, Hodge appears less certain; he continues to make his home in Brooklyn.
Andrew R. Graybill is the chair of the history department and co-director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.