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Monday, June 15, 2009

The Texicans

Even after its admission to the Union, Texas was a dangerous place for those staking a claim to a new life there. Life, already tough enough for the small farmers and ranchers working so hard simply to survive from one season to the next, was complicated by the presence of Comanche warriors unwilling to give up their tribal lands without a fight. Sudden, violent, death was still common enough to scare away all but the hardiest, or most desperate, of settlers.

Nina Vida’s The Texicans is the story of a handful of accidental Texans, a group with little in common who met in Texas for the first time and banded together for their common good and protection. Vida’s approach of describing this colorful period of Texas history through the experiences of its poorest, and often most desperate, settlers rather than through those of the state’s wealthier, well-known leaders gives the reader a strong sense of the odds faced by anyone seeking a fresh start in the state.

Joseph Kimmel, a Missouri schoolteacher bored with his job, comes to Texas to settle the business affairs of his recently deceased brother, a San Antonio storekeeper, but does not intend to settle in the state. Joseph, though, is the kind of man who cannot resist helping those in need, especially if he is their only hope. Before long, he finds himself responsible for the well-being of an assortment of new Texans who will change his life as deeply as he changes theirs.

Kimmel may have come to Texas with no plan other than to do right by his brother, but he somehow winds up with a ranch unlike any other in the state, one at which Mexicans, freed blacks, escaped slaves, Indians and immigrant Texans are treated as equals, partners, and neighbors. Among the castoffs living on the ranch is Aurelia, a young Mexican woman who finds herself suddenly widowed when her brute of a Texas Ranger husband dies in a skirmish against a band of Indians. Kimmel will remain infatuated with Aurelia his entire life despite his marriage to Katrin, the young Alsatian woman he marries in order to save her from the Comanche leader who wants her for his own. Kimmel also offers refuge to Luck, a runaway slave who once stole his horse and left him stranded in the wilderness, and to a family of four ex-slaves (father, mother and two young sons) abandoned on the trail by their owner when the father seems certain to die from a badly fractured leg.

The Texicans covers twelve years in the life of Joseph Kimmel and those closest to him during an exciting period of Texas history (1840s-1850s). Their stories represent both the harsh realities of life in Texas during this period and the romantic notions often associated with those years. Nina Vida, however, does not allow her plot to be dominated by its romantic elements. Her characters come to Texas for different reasons, and they have varying degrees of luck once they get there. Some are more successful than others are; some are happy, some not; some become rich men, others do not survive for long.

The Texicans perfectly captures the spirit and desperation of the times and, through the eyes of its diverse set of characters, shows what a crapshoot 1840s Texas was. Some won, some lost, and most were happy just to break even.

Rated at: 4.0
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