Friday, March 21, 2014

The Son by Philipp Meyer

Title: The Son
Classification: Adult Fiction
Genre: Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover; 576 pages
Publisher: Ecco; First Edition edition (May 28, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0062120395
ISBN-13: 978-0062120397
Notes: Received a copy from the publisher.

Every story has two sides....

In 1846 Eli McCullough's family took up residence in the new frontier of Texas. Described as a land with trees that had never heard the sound of an ax with rich soil, grass up to a man's chest, and all variety of animal living off the fat of the land; it was a settler's paradise. Three years after the family reached the seemingly promised land, they were attacked by Comanche Indians. Eli McCullough was the soul survivor, his father being away at the time, was spared as well. Eli and his brother, Martin, were considered a valuable commodity and the Comanche's took them for their usefulness. Martin, however, didn't make it far. Having seen his sister and mother raped, tortured, and disfigured before they were killed, he'd lost the will to live. He was cut down before ever making it to their final destination and that left Eli alone. As they made their way into uncharted territory, it became clear Eli's father would not be able to follow where they were going. Seeing no escape or rescue in his near future and being a survivor at heart, Eli assimilated into the tribe and thrived. Years later, he'd found himself thrust back into white society as war and disease took their toll on his Comanche brethren. His transition this time would not be as smooth. This is Eli McCullough's and his family's story.
One Family with one story
Two very different accounts
Three Generations
Two men at odds
One son who may be his father's undoing.


I remember once hearing a story about two friends who fought over something they saw. An individual walked around in a new hat and the two friends each saw it. The one friend insisted the hat was one color while the other insisted it was another. As it turned out, they were both right and both wrong. The hat was indeed both colors, but each side sported only one of the two colors. The friends had seen only one view of the hat and assumed they knew exactly what the hat looked like as a whole. In other words, they only saw one side of the hat and many times we only see one side of a story. When you put the two together, however, it can alter your perception of the whole. That's what this story reminds me of.

Colonel Eli McCullough was thought by all to be a hero. He'd survived an Indian attack, living in captivity, and the settling of a part of Texas that was one of the last frontiers of the United States. His name, thanks to his great-granddaughter, was beginning to make its way into the history books. But one thing can change all that. As the story begins, Jeanne Anne McCullough, granddaughter to Eli McCullough, lay dying in her family home. One of her last thoughts is of the one thing she left undone..."The papers, she thought. She had saved them from the fire once and had not gotten around to destroying them. Now they would be found."

As the story begins, we get three distinct views from three very different people of one man, Eli McCullough. One view is from Eli's own perspective, one is from his son's, Peter's, and the last is by Eli's great-granddaughter's, Jeanne's. Eli is a man's man. He's charismatic and easy to like and has that quality that makes people follow him. An air, if you will, that he knows what he's doing and that calls to many people. His son Peter, however, is a more gentle soul and has a very different view of his father than most. I have to admit at times his perspective came off as annoying because he pretty much hated his father yet constantly tried to gain his approval. Toward the end of his diary entries, he realized if he ever was to be happy, he had to lead his life on his terms and not those of his father. He could never be the son his father wanted. He didn't want to be that person.

My favorite of the three McCulloughs was Jeanne. In a way, she was her great-grandfather's great-granddaughter. The two were very much alike. Jeanne and Eli were both straddling two worlds. Jeanne was smart, ambitious, and had a good head on her shoulders and was a woman trying to fit into a man's world. A world who thought women should stay home barefoot and pregnant. At one point, she states, "People made no sense to her. Men, with whom she had everything in common, did not want her around. Women, with whom she had nothing in common, smiled too much, laughed too loud, and mostly reminded her of small dogs; their lives lost in interior decorating and other peoples’ outfits. There had never been a place for a person like her." For Eli, he was trying to fit back into a white man's society when part of him would always long for the lifestyle of the Indian's who'd stolen him. Neither Eli or Jeanne  felt they entirely fit into either of the worlds they were straddling. Perhaps that's why they bonded so easily to one another. Unfortunately, they both ended up surrounded by others, yet very lonely.

I loved Eli's story. If you're looking for a romanticized view of the west, this is not the story for you. This story depicts a harsh, often brutal look at a land untamed with little to no law. Where people would be there one day and gone the next--the victims of a deadly attack. Where neighbors would often work together not for the good of the whole but to claim the land of another. Where you took what you wanted, and killed any who tried to take it away. Where the law could be bribed to look the other way and killed when they didn't comply. As Eli stated, "There is a myth about the West, that it was founded and ruled by loners, while the truth is just the opposite; the loner is a mental weakling, and was seen as such, and treated with suspicion. You did not live long without someone watching your back and there were very few people, white or Indian, who did not see a stranger in the night and invite him to join the campfire."  and "Only bullets and walls make for honest neighbors."

Meyer does an excellent job of emphasizing the theme that there are two sides to every story. He does it when Eli gets Toshaway's account of why the Indians hate the white man and what was done to them as a group. Again, the theme is repeated when Maria tells the folklore of the handsome young Mexican who fell in love with a rancher's daughter and met a horrible death because he tried to over step his social standing. Peter tells a very similar, but very different version of what appears to be the same story. In his version, the young Mexican who meets a similar fate is not a man with noble attentions,  but a horse thief whose killing was justified.

What was compelling about the story, and makes for an excellent book club read, is that it focuses on a variety of aspects of human nature as well as history, which make for great discussions. What makes a person happy? What makes a person's life worthwhile? With statements like, "Of course you wanted your children to have it better than you had. But at what point was it not better at all? People needed something to worry about or they would destroy themselves" there is much to stimulate conversation. Plus, once we get both sides of the story, you have to decide what your thoughts of Eli McCullough are.  Is he a hero or a killer? Were the Indians killers or the settlers? Did Eli take away the correct message from his Comanche family or did he misinterpret it? At the end, who led the happier life? 

Overall, I gave this one 4 1/2  out of 5 roses. It had a good pace and interesting story. It's one of those books that makes you think and see the two sides giving us a taste of how the West, and America in general, was won. To the victor goes the spoils, and as Eli McCullough stated, "No land was ever acquired honestly in the history of the earth." The question is, was acquiring all the riches and land in the manner that they were worth the constant need to look over your shoulder to make sure no one is attempting to take it away? Does land and riches truly make one happy? I'll leave you with one last thought from the epigraph, "the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works . . . buries empires and cities in a common grave. --Edward Gibbon"

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