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
Promised Lands Afterword
During the years she was researching and writing Promised Lands, Elizabeth Crook generated, in addition to the 511 pages of the finished book, an untold quantity of heavily amended manuscript pages, file cards, and spiral notebooks filled with reminders about her characters' behavior, dress, and deployment. They were the usual tailings of a long writing labor, the kind of detritus that every novelist secretly hopes will one day rise in value from worthless to priceless.
But one of Elizabeth Crook's leftovers is not usual at all. It is a thick, custom-cut piece of white poster board, 39 inches long by 28 inches wide, divided by pencil lines into a series of 217 narrow rectangles, each rectangle representing a day during the seven-month period — from October of 1835 until April of 1836 — in which this novel about the Texas Revolution takes place. The spaces for the days are filled in with pencil annotations so minute and dense that they are almost microscopic. Even when viewed from a distance of only two or three feet, these markings do not register as human handwriting. they look more like the work of some fanatic doodler. On close inspection, however, the squares reveal a wealth of eccentric detail: "Karankawas meet with commissioners (Kerr, Linn) below Goliad," reads a typical entry (for October 29). On this same day, the author notes to herself, "McKinney at Columbia received 2 twelve pounders and ammo," and "Montezuma appears off bar sailing toward Galveston." It is revealed that the debts of the upstart Texas government total, as of January 28, $28,089.93; that the weather on February 29 ("leap year Monday") is "warm, overcast; at night a N gale wet & cold storm", that the joining of Tolsa's and Sesma's Mexican forces on March 23 creates a combined division of "1,300 infantry, 2 field pieces, 150 cavalry."
When I first saw this calendar my reaction was a kind of territorial panic, since I was working on a novel set in exactly the same time period and had barely gotten started. I felt trumped by this authoritative timeline, by the months or even years of lonely data-crunching it implied. And I knew that wherever I would go in my own research, whatever gleaming nuggets of period detail I might unearth, I could not escape the fact that I would be working ground that had already been exhaustively mined by Elizabeth Crook.
I should not have been surprised by Elizabeth's manic industriousness. I had known her for several years, ever since, as a part-time fiction consultant for Texas Monthly Press, I had come across the manuscript for her first novel, a towering stack of paper that strained the capacity of its oversize stationery box and bore the grandiose title of Honor and Empire. This book, an ingenious and deeply moving fictional take on Sam Houston's mysterious first marriage to Eliza Allen, had been rejected by almost every major publisher by the time it arrived at Texas Monthly Press. I couldn't figure out why, except to assume that the novel frustrated any obvious marketing strategy. Its subject matter — star-crossed, strong-willed lovers whose passions precipitate the rise and fall of nations — might at first glance have suggested a lurid historical romance, and perhaps those initial readers were perplexed when the novel turned out to be high-minded and resoundingly literary.
Texas Monthly Press enthusiastically agreed to publish Honor and Empire. Its trumpet-blast of a title was eventually discarded in favor of The Raven's Bride and the manuscript itself shed perhaps a hundred pages during several months of editing. Unfortunately the Press went out of business before the book could be brought out, and it languished in the wilderness for another year or so until Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis acquired it for Doubleday. In print at last, The Raven's Bride was a clear success, scoring solid sales, admiring reviews, and a peculiar invitation for its author to appear on To Tell the Truth.
By this time, Elizabeth was already deep into her next novel, Promised Lands. Though my brief career as a book editor had dissolved along with Texas Monthly Press, I kept tabs on the new book, reading the first drafts of each new chapter and offering whatever editing suggestions came to mind. In return, Elizabeth guided me in the early research for my own novel, making sure I read the Diary of Colonel William Fairfax Gray and Mary S. Helen's Scraps of Early Texas History, lending me her precious copies of Hobart Huson's two-volume history of Refugio County, launching into an aggrieved rebuttal when I happened to mention a contemporary account that said Sam Houston wore a girdle.
It was immediately apparent that Promised Lands was going to be a far more ambitious and complex book than The Raven's Bride. It was bigger in scope, bigger in heart, bigger in meaning. For the book to work at all, it would have to be masterfully written, since both the logistical and emotional demands of the story were vast. But from the very first paragraph, it was clear that the author was fearless, not intimidated in the least by the size of the empty canvas stretching before her. As usual, Elizabeth's spelling was atrocious, but the story that unfolded in those rough chapters was marvelously precise.
The dramatic focus of Promised Lands is the Palm Sunday execution on March 27, 1836, of almost four hundred Texan rebels at Goliad. It is a populous novel, and the Goliad Massacre serves as a vortex that draws its many characters into the same tragic orbit. A few of those characters are historical personages. Sam Houston, ungirdled, shows up a time or two; Jim Bowie makes an appearance, as does the Mexican general Jose Urrea and his doomed adversary Colonel James Fannin. But at heart Promised Lands is a back-channel historical epic, less interested in grand personages and famous battles than in ordinary people struggling to comprehend and survive events they had no hand in creating. The author vividly dramatizes the bluster and ambition of the war leaders on both sides, but her heart is clearly with those more resonantly human characters who, out of pride or fear or wisdom, stand apart from history as long as decency will allow it.
The book is decidedly not the traditional salute to the Anglo-American victors of the Texas Revolution. Neither is it a revisionist manifesto. Promised Lands is hardheaded but warmhearted, placing its emphasis squarely where it ought to be: on the timeless truths of human behavior, not on the vagaries of historical fashion. It is a measure of the author's clear and rueful vision that the biggest losers in the book — the dispossessed Mexican-born tejanos — are also its richest characters.
While she was writing the novel, Elizabeth fretted endlessly about her obligations to the historical record. She had a lot of people to move around, a lot of events to encompass, and she wouldn't give herself a break. For instance, once she wanted one of her Anglo characters to meet up with General Urrea's forces in Goliad, but her character was too far away. Elizabeth's chart said that Urrea was at such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time, and her character, traveling by horseback, would not be able to make the journey fast enough to encounter him.
"Move Urrea," I said.
She looked at me as if I had just suggested she set fire to a nursing home.
"Yeah. Put him someplace other than Goliad, just for a day or two."
"But I can't do that!"
"Because he was in Goliad!"
I reminded her that it was a novel, that it was a made-up story, and that if she felt that bad about changing the facts she could confess her sin in an afterword to the two or three obsessive Texas history scholars who might chance to notice it in the first place. Time after time such issues came up, but nothing I could say would make her bend the rules that she had set for herself.
A stern adherence to the historical record, or course, is no guarantee of a successful historical novel. It is now a voguish habit of some historical novelists to parade their research in front of the reader, attaching pages and pages of maps, appendices, and learned essays on sources. The problem is that a reader often feels that the novelist is more interested in showing off these credentials than in telling a story.
Promised Lands, for all its historical rigor, is finally a work of vision. It is fiction in the finest sense, a story that is sharper, more resonant, and unaccountably more real than the factual events that inspired it. During the time she was writing the novel, Elizabeth — who, it must be said, can be something of a motor-mouth on the phone — exhausted a number of her friends with her endless ponderings about her characters. She talked about Hugh Kenner, Adelaido Pacheco, Crucita, and Domingo de la Rosa as if they were actual people, describing what they had done or were about to do in intense detail, worrying about their fates, presiding over all their lives with a clairvoyance that at times I think brought her real anguish.
Once she called me up and, with a trembling voice, said that she was now facing the chapter she had been dreading, the chapter in which she would have to kill off one of her favorite characters.
"I just don't think I can do it," she said, as if she were contemplating an authentic murder.
"I'll do it," I volunteered.
There was a long silence. "Will you?"
"Fax me what you've written so far."
The pages of the new chapter arrived a few minutes later. The words crept cautiously up to the brink of the death scene, but then ended, leaving an ominous block of white space on the page. I killed the character, faxed back the chapter, and went on about my business. When Elizabeth called back several hours later, she was still choking back tears. She said she felt as if she had let somebody else take her dog to the vet to be put to sleep.
Of course, she was more than capable of writing the scene herself, since it was she who had pitilessly decreed the character's fate in the first place. But I think her relief at not having to watch as it happened, so to speak, was genuine. And that is a key to the wonderful success of the novel. The characters of Promised Lands could not mean so much to us if their creator had not believed in them so palpably and so painfully.
The novel was published in 1994. It sold respectably but in my opinion was handicapped by jacket art depicting a tumultuous orange sky in which the clouds coalesced into a ghostly horse. The cover was not in keeping with the novel's stateliness, its truth-telling, its beautiful language. Promised Lands is a fast and vibrant read, but it is hardly the facile page-turner that that painting implies. When I remember what are for me some of the most powerful passages in the book — a nursing mother's milk coming in as she is pierced by Comanche arrows; a twelve-year-old boy crouching in the grass at the battle of Coleto Creek, searching for air in a cloud of suffocating gunsmoke; the unredeemed horror of the Palm Sunday Massacre; an old woman swept off to her death in a flood — I remember how I originally read them over again and again, wanting to savor the precision with which they had been planted in my brain. The only word I know to describe that kind of writing is literature.
Elizabeth has moved on to another novel, set in another time period, and since she has no more use for her day-by-day calendar of the Texas Revolution she has lent it to me while I grind away at my own novel. I consult it from time to time, but when I do it feels like poaching. Propped against my office wall, it serves mostly as a source of inspiration, a reminder that pedantic efficiency sometimes evolves into magic, that a book can exist at one stage as mere annotations on a piece of posterboard, and then somehow, through some synthesis of craft and good fortune and dogged labor, rise up like a spirit. That is what happened with Promised Lands. I think that this novel will remain in print, and reside in the memory of its readers, for many years to come.