The idea that Europeans discovered a pristine wilderness when they arrived in the New World, sparsely populated by loose bands of natives who lived lightly on the land in relative harmony with one another, has been waning for more than a decade—and for good reason.
In 2005, Charles C. Mann’s best-selling book, 1491, popularized a revisionist theory that the Western Hemisphere before Columbus was teeming with Indian societies many times larger and more sophisticated—and older—than previously thought, and that these indigenous peoples radically shaped the land and changed it to suit their purposes. The vast herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains, for example, were essentially a managed livestock. Indian fire cleared the expanse of prairie in the middle of the continent, “which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which is still taught in most schools, the inhabitants of the Americas “were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly marked by humankind.”
As for the Native Americans themselves, Mann argued (with the support of a growing corpus of new scholarship) that they were weakened and eventually wiped out not by European guns, but by European diseases. Typhus, influenza, diphtheria and measles tore through Indian societies, often years ahead of European explorers and colonists themselves, like weapons they “could not control and did not even know they had.”
None was worse than smallpox. In the late 18th century, writes Mann, the Hopi Indians of the southern plains “were constantly under attack by the Nermernuh (or Nememe), a fluid collection of hunting bands known today as the Comanche (the name, awarded by an enemy group, means ‘people who fight us all the time’).” The Comanche had driven the Hopi and Apache out of the plains and were planning to do the same to encroaching European settlers when a smallpox epidemic hit and the raiding stopped for 18 months. The disease decimated the Comanche, and by the late 19th century their numbers in Texas and New Mexico had dwindled to the thousands.
Philip Meyer’s new novel, The Son, subscribes to this theory of Native American societies and leverages it to explore the American creation myth. The book, a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas, follows three characters spanning five generations of the McCullough family. It opens with an account taken from a 1936 WPA recording of the family patriarch, Eli McCullough, whose life story encompasses Meyer’s theme:
Having been trounced by the aboriginals, the Mexican government devised a desperate plan to settle Texas. Any man, of any nation, willing to move east of the Sabine River would receive four thousand acres of free land. The fine print was written in blood. The Comanche philosophy toward outsiders was nearly papal in its thoroughness: torture and kill the men, rape and kill the women, take the children for slaves or adoption. Few from the ancient countries of Europe took the Mexicans up on their offer. In fact, no one came at all. Except the Americans. They flooded in. They had women and children to spare and to him that overcometh, I giveth to eat of the tree of life.
Eli, the first child born in the newly-created Republic of Texas, is taken captive by the Comanche at age thirteen. His family is killed, horrifically, in the raid and he is taken as a slave—a common occurrence in Texas at the time, by Meyer’s telling. Eventually, the tribe adopts him and he becomes a warrior, riding with his erstwhile captors on raids against Mexicans and white settlers.
A few years later he leaves not by choice, but because the tribe is decimated by smallpox. Being immune, he is among the few who survive. While digging their graves he finds a drinking cup made of pottery and, digging deeper, unearths the corner of a stone wall. Eli realizes he has “come upon the remains of some ancient tribe that had lived in towns or cities, a tribe so long extinct no one remembered they had ever lived.” This thought gives him comfort because it makes his dying Comanche tribe “seem very young; they were young and there was still hope.”
He returns to white civilization and in time becomes a Texas Ranger, hunting Indians—including Comanche—up and down the frontier. When the Civil War breaks out he’s put in command of a band of Cherokees that enlists with the Confederacy, and so goes back to hunting and killing whites. His world is blood-drenched and brutal, and although the lines between cultures and races may be blurred for him, Eli’s one constant is violence. He takes what he must, kills those who stand in his way, and feels no remorse for doing so. All men, in his view, survive by theft and murder. He first learns this not from white people but from the Comanche chief who adopts him, whose world is a place where “you only get rich by taking things from other people.” What puzzles the chief is that most white people don’t admit to themselves what they’re doing, and are surprised when you kill them. “Me, when I steal something, I expect the person will try to kill me, and I know the song I will sing when I die.”
Meyer’s Indians are not quiet, noble, Hollywood natives whose idyllic existence was shattered by appearance of the white man. They are warriors who live in a state of constant war. “Of course we are not stupid, the land did not always belong to the Comanche,” Eli’s chief tells him. “Many years ago it was Tonkawa land, but we liked it, so we killed the Tonkawa and took it from them.” When Eli must make a living after the war, he does so by rounding up as many wild cattle as he can—taking what is there for any man willing to take it. Capturing and branding the animals was hard work, but it was just as hard to keep them from being stolen: “There was always a neighbor who found it more enjoyable to spend that same year grinning up at the sun; all he had to do was come into your pastures one night with ten of his boon companions, where, in a few hours, he could take your entire year’s income and make it his.”
The other two characters Meyer follows, Eli’s son Peter and his great granddaughter Jeannie, carry the McCulloughs through the 20th century. Peter is haunted by the family’s history of violence, and Jeannie becomes the sole, stoic inheritor of the family fortune, founded on cattle and vastly expanded by the discovery of oil. But next to Eli they seem unimportant and flimsy. Their purpose, in the end, is to complete Meyer’s portrait of Eli, to give his world context by connecting it to ours, and to help the reader grapple with the questions that arise again and again throughout the narrative: who wiped out whom, and who is descended from whom, and what is the difference between the two?
On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom. For the eight thousand years between the Folsom and the Spanish, no one knew what happened; there had been people here the whole time, but no one knew what they were called. Though right before the Spanish came there were the Mogollon and when the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudo… but whether they had wiped out the Mogollon or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apache. Who were in turn wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanche. Who were in turn wiped out by the Americans.
Meyer’s aim is not to condemn white settlers or the founders of the Republic of Texas, any more than he seeks to condemn the Comanche or the Mexicans. But neither does he defend them, and everyone, in his telling, comes away with blood on their hands. No one is innocent of outright theft and cold-blooded murder, and the message seems to be that if we are to have an American creation myth, it should be written in the blood of the massacred.
It’s true, there is ample blood and blame to go around in the story of the American West. And yet there is something overwrought about this thesis, something not quite believable, and it shows in the seams of the novel—the way Meyer dwells overmuch on this or that detail, the way too many members of the McCullough family meet a violent or premature death, the way coincidences woven into the plot begin to take on a cinematic aspect. One senses important things are being left out, that there is more to be said about all this history than is being said, that there is more we ought to be thinking about. And yet one is nevertheless swept up in the realism of Meyer’s prose and the pathos of his story.
In the 1992 film adaptation of James Fennimore Cooper’s epic novel, Last of the Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis is said to have trained rigorously for his role as Nathaniel Hawkeye, a white man raised by Indians. The actor reportedly learned how to live off the land, camping and fishing, hunting with a muzzle-loading rifle he carried with him at all times. He even learned to skin animals.
Meyer did something similar for The Son. He learned to track animals at a wilderness school, spent a month in combat training with a private military firm, slept outside in southern Texas to experience all the sensations of native life. To complete his training, the author learned to hunt deer with a bow and arrow, and supposedly drank a cup of blood from a Buffalo he shot on a ranch in West Texas.
Like Day-Lewis, Meyer gives a rousing performance. The chapters devoted to Eli are enthralling and authoritative. One unforgettable passage describes, in Melvillian detail, the process of killing and butchering a buffalo:
The stomach was removed, the grass squeezed from it and the remaining juice drunk immediately as a tonic, or dabbed onto the face by those who had boils or other skin problems. The contents of the intestines were squeezed out between the fingers and the intestines themselves were either broiled or eaten raw.
It is, like the rest of the book, exceedingly well-written. But about half way through something begins to happen in this novel that is best explained by Annie Dillard in her slim collection, The Writing Life: “You can describe beautiful faces, car chases, or valleys full of Indians on horseback until you run out of words, and you will not approach the movies’ spectacle. Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor… Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens.”
That is not to say Meyer had a film contract in mind while writing The Son (although it would come as no surprise if the rights had already been optioned) only that his cinematic approach, with all its gore and gunfights, crowds out more nuanced ways of thinking about our creation myth and the trouble with human nature. That is, to understand the meaning of our bloody history requires more than simply accepting Meyer’s epigraph, quoted from Edward Gibbon, that “the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his work… buries empires and cities in a common grave.”
The truth is a good deal more complicated than that, and Meyer might have done better to cite Gibbon not on the immutability of fate, but on the prodigious task of rightly interpreting history: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”