Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
San Marcos native offers engaging new historical novel of the Texas Revolution
by Susan Hanson
To create a character, the novelist discovers, is to know something of the risks of parenthood. Like the mother who must one day let go and simply watch as her son or daughter head off alone, the writer also reaches a point where she has to let her character take the lead.
Such was the case in Elizabeth Crook's novel of the Texas Revolution, Promised Lands.
"In The Raven's Bride, I knew the story before I started writing," Crook says of her 1991 best seller. "But in this one, I just knew the characters."
"The problem," she admits, "is that there's a lot of insecurity in that. But there's also a real sense of freedom in that you don't know what's going to happen. My sense was to just tell the story as it grew, to let it evolve."
Unlike The Raven's Bride, which focuses on the baffling relationship between Sam Houston and his young bride Eliza Allen, Promised Lands does not attempt to re-create history. Instead, it uses historical events as the background against which a host of fictional characters live out their lives.
"In this novel, I didn't feel like I'd have to be answering to ghosts as I did in the last one," Crook says. "I was free to draw the characters as I wanted to."
While Promised Lands does feature a number of figures from Texas history -- Sam Houston, James Fannin, and Santa Anna among them -- these characters do not occupy center stage.
"I never use these people as my point of view characters," explains Crook. "We only see them through the other characters' eyes."
Just as her characters had to be given the freedom to change and grow, Crook adds, she had to allow the plot to take some unexpected turns.
"The novel started out being about the Runaway Scrape," she says, "but then it shifted south. It really wasn't the story I started to tell in the end. It's actually better."
Set in the Mexican province of Texas in 1835-36, Promised Lands depicts the Texas Revolution not only from the perspective of the Anglo settlers, many of whom eventually fight and die at Goliad, but also from the point of view of the Tejanos who have been their neighbors.
As the story unfolds, readers see the struggle through the eyes of two families in particular -- the Kenners, some of whom are caught up in the fighting and some of whom are swept east in the Runaway Scrape; and the Pachecos, the Tejano horseman Adelaido and his sister Crucita.
Finding their lives intertwined in some strange and surprising ways, the two families are irrevocably changed by the events of the war.
"This is not a book with happy endings," Crook admits. "But I didn't want to clean it up just for the sake of comfort."
And indeed, there is much to make the sensitive reader squirm.
From the battle of Goliad, and the subsequent execution of 400 Texas prisoners, to the battle of San Jacinto, Crook conveys the horrors of war in agonizing detail. Far from being overdrawn, however, that detail adds significantly to the book's sense of realism and shatters any assumptions the reader might have about the glories of the Texas Revolution.
Ironically, Crook's own response to the violence in her book is mixed. "It is really easier for me to write violence than to read it or watch it on television because I have control of it," she admits. "There's something comforting in that. I also sort of know that it's not going to get out of hand."
Nevertheless, when the time came for one of her female characters to die, Crook couldn't do the job.
"I let Steve kill her," she says, referring to her friend and fellow writer Steve Harrigan. "I wrote the entire lead-up, faxed it to him, and went out for a jog. When I got back, there was his fax. I sat down and read it, and I felt horrible. I felt like I was abandoning her."
Crook knew that the character had to die, however, and so she kept Harrigan's scene in the book, changing it just enough to make it her own.
On a lighter note, Crook explains that when she came to the Goliad massacre, the only way she was able to deal with the seriousness of the scene was to "kill" men she had once dated and didn't like.
"I know who they are, and so do my friends," Crook says. In fact, as the scene progressed, more and more of her friends asked to have their former boyfriends included, too.
In all, Crook says, eight or nine of the men executed at Goliad are based, to some extent at least, on real individuals.
Three of the book's major characters also are drawn from real figures in Texas history.
For example, Crook explains, the Tejano ranchero Domingo de la Rosa is based loosely on a man named de la Garza, a rancher who lived on the San Antonio River near Goliad and served as a spy for Santa Anna. Young Toby Kenner, she notes, is fashioned after John C. Duval, who recorded his wanderings following the Goliad massacre in the book Early Times in Texas. And the woman killed at San Jacinto is inspired by the lone woman believed to have been murdered there.
"We don't know anything about her, so I wanted to give her an identity," Crook says, adding that she gained much information about the battle from the depositions taken years after the woman's death.
Other information, she says, came from books purchased from the late John Jenkins and from interviews with experts in a variety of fields.
"With this book I didn't have to spend a lot of time in courthouses and cemeteries (as she did doing research for The Raven's Bride)," Crook notes. "But I did need to know about travel and farming and clothing and structures.
"The good thing was that I kind of had a sense of the national political scene in the United States because of Raven's Bride," she adds. "But I really didn't know much about Mexico, and I really didn't know much about Catholicism."
When it came to doing research on the edible wild plants of the Goliad area, Crook says that she often ended up sampling plants herself. "I did a lot of wandering around Goliad tasting things to see what the Texans might have survived on. My mother hiked around with me and was always asking me not to taste things," she admits with a laugh.
In other matters, however, Crook took a less hands-on approach.
"I found it was always easier to sit down with an expert for two hours (than to search through the written accounts)," she says, noting that she relied on experts for information about such subjects as weaponry, Tejano ranching practices, and Texas Indian life during this period.
"If you can identify what questions you need to ask," Crook points out, "you can get at the information in a much more adequate way."
Through this precision of detail, not to mention her gift for character and plot development, Elizabeth Crook has written what author Larry McMurtry calls "a vivid, engaging book" that "deserves wide readership."
As Bill Moyers has put it, "She has brought to life the great events of Texas past and turned them into a robust novel. The characters, the descriptions, and the drama are a panorama that only a fine historian or inspired novelist could handle to the reader's delight, and Ms. Crook is both."