Fiction – paperback; Soho Press; 304 pages; 2006. Review copy courtesy of the author.
I can’t remember the last “Western” novel I read; it’s not a genre I find particularly interesting, but I put that down to a childhood filled with F-Troop re-runs on TV!
Nina Vida’s The Texicans is set during the mid-19th century, about 18 or so years before the American Civil War.
The story spans 12 years in the life of Joseph Kimmel, a Missouri school teacher, who decides to give up his job in order to tie up his deceased brother’s business interests in San Antonio, Texas. Somewhere along the way, he gets distracted and never quite makes it to San Antonio. He spends four years in the newly established Castroville instead, where he marries a German immigrant, Katrin, not because he loves her, but to save her from the local Indian chief.
Life in the mountains
The couple head for the mountains to make a new life for themselves, acquiring a handful of misfits, including two escaped African slaves and their families, along the way. This is risky business for Joseph, because having negro sympathies could earn him a lynching. However, as a Jew born to Polish immigrants, he knows what it is like to be cast aside and treated as not quite human.
Much of the story revolves around the adventures and dramas as Joseph begins to establish his own town known as Kimmelsburg. It’s a tough way of life and there are many battles to be fought with local Indian tribes, including the Comanche and Tonkaways.
Meanwhile, as Joseph struggles to love the woman he married, he falls for Aurelia Ruiz, the daughter of a Mexican man and his Anglo wife. But Aurelia, who has made a name for herself as a healer (or witch), is already married to one of the runaway slaves and is therefore out of bounds. But this thwarted love affair adds an extra dimension to a story that is already ripe with drama and intrigue.
Odd structure but gripping narrative
Sadly, I think the book, while eloquently written, suffers a little from its odd structure. It opens with the story of Aurelia, and explains how she developed her healing talent, was later married off to a cruel white man and eventually lives with a tribe of Comanche indians. It’s a rip-roaring narrative that I thoroughly enjoyed, but then, oddly, her story seems to end and we’re suddenly thrust into the world of Joseph Kimmel, never to truly return to Aurelia’s point of view.
The characters are also perplexing, in the sense that I found it very hard to identify with them. Joseph is a complete enigma: he seems so socially liberal and kind-hearted and generous, but the ways in which he treats his wife, barely acknowledging her and showing no love or fondness, is hard to reconcile.
Equally, Katrin seems incredibly strong and resilient in all matters except where her husband is concerned, and Aurelia, by far the most interesting person in the whole book, seems to flit around the periphery of the story, never taking centre stage.
But what I liked most about The Texicans is the refreshingly honest presentation of history, free from political correctness. This is a world where settlers — white and black — must learn to live with the fear of being scalped by Indians and lynched by the Texas rangers. In some ways it reminded me of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, although Vida tends to paint the pioneers in a rose-coloured light that would make Grenville quake at the knees.