The book traces three generations of the McCullough family by following the lives of Eli, Peter and Jeanne, for almost two centuries, from the early 1800’s to the early 2000’s. The McCollough family settled in Texas before it became a state, while it was still Mexican territory, and the book follows the years as the conflicts and distrust between the Texans and the Mexicans raged, eventually broadening in scope. It captures the spirit of the frontier and the wild west.
Eli, born in 1836, is kidnapped by the Comanches, with his older brother Martin, in 1849. They witness the brutal rape, murder and mutilation of their mother and sister. They are then tied, beaten and taken away by the Indians. Martin is weak, cannot adjust to captivity and is eventually murdered also. Eli, at 13, is stronger and more resilient. He is enslaved and then adopted by the Indian who captured him, and, for all intents and purposes, he becomes an Indian over the following three years, hunting animals and pillaging and killing the white man with them. He seems older than a mere teen and falls in love with a young squaw. During his 16th year, the Indians are wiped out by disease, including his beloved. There are only a few powerful Indians left, and when the Comancheros come, Eli is allowed to leave with them. They will get a bounty for returning him to his people.
We then witness Eli’s murderous behavior as a Texas Ranger, hunting Indians now, and also Mexicans. He has joined a group known for their cruelty and abuses, We watch as he becomes a wealthy cattle rancher and oilman. We learn of his resentment toward the Mexicans and his cold and calculating attitude toward life, of which he had an abundance, dying at the ripe old age of 100! Eli is a brutal man who kills without conscience. His years with the Indians have shaped him and he often exhibits conflicting behavior, ranging from kindness to butchery.
Through the diary of his son, Peter, which begins around 1915, we learn about the history of the family and their different personalities. Peter is not as mercenary as his father or as violent. He disapproves of his father’s coldness and cruelty. He is in love with a Mexican woman, a survivor of the family his father destroyed.
Finally, through the eyes of Peter’s niece, Jeanne, great granddaughter of Eli, the elderly, last remaining member of the family, we learn of the indifference of the family to brutality while always serving their own needs. As she lay dying, in her 80’s, we travel through her memories and learn of the documents the family altered, the murders they committed, their manipulation of situations to increase their land holdings and wealth, their inability to behave in any way other than that which would serve their own needs, feeling little or no guilt or shame for any of their behavior, having no desire to do anything but to hide their crimes. Their lives will come full circle and will lead to their eventual downfall. Beginning with the murder of the Garcia family whose land they confiscated, and ending with the death of Jeanne, witnessed by a Garcia descendant, the sad decline of the family evolves, which seemed like the natural order of things, following their wanton destruction of other people’s lives.
The story is written well, the history is well researched and extremely informative and interesting, but also hard to read because of the ferocity of the carnage. The book sometimes feels like it is all over the place. It needs a timeline and a family tree so the reader is not overwhelmed with trying to figure out what is happening to whom and when. When the reader does Peter’s part, it is the audio’s weakest moment because it is too much of a monotone and it is difficult to understand, at times. Overall, the book is too long and the descriptions are a little too detailed. They were sometimes beautiful, sometimes gruesome. There are several interesting romances and a lot of excessive, unnecessary sexual content. After awhile, the story seemed to be the same for each character, a need for sex, a need for money and a sadness that pervaded their lives, all the time. They were never content with anything. Each of the characters was obsessed with their own needs and satisfaction: Eli was strong and mercenary, Peter was more introspective and compassionate, but weak, Jeanie was authoritative, hungry to be a strong woman in a man’s world. Ultimately, the family that began with Eli’s hatred toward the Mexicans whom he considered beneath him and in the way of his ultimate goals, returned to its beginning when his bloodline winds up in the same Mexican Garcia family.
After reading, one will wonder, is it big money or greedy people, is it politics or corrupt politicians, is it a lack of ethics and morality that led, over those two centuries, to this heinous behavior toward Mexicans, Indians, Jews, anyone considered of lesser value? Without people who are willing to exploit the system, wouldn’t big money and politics be meaningless, or, at the very least, neutralized. One will have to ask the pertinent question, has anything really changed?