Foreword: Fact-Based Novel

FOREWORD by the Author

The subtitle of The Edge of Freedom is “A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.”  What is a “fact-based” novel? I decided not to use the older term “non-fiction novel” because it is impossible to write a novel without imagining and creating thoughts, emotions, dialogue, and descriptions.

What I mean by the term is that I have made a concentrated effort to adhere to dates, facts, and events as they have been recorded by historians and by some of the people who were actually involved in the Texas Revolution, while I have provided what I hope are highly plausible additions. These have the usual novelistic functions of describing characters– their likely emotional reactions, their appearance, their relations to their own and the national past—and describing their surroundings.

But some of the most important “additions” to this book about the Goliad campaign in the Texas Revolution suggest answers to larger, mostly unanswerable questions. When I first became intrigued by the Goliad story while traveling with my family to vacation on the Texas Gulf Coast many years ago, I was dissatisfied with the gaps in the story of the Revolution, especially the connection between Goliad and the Alamo. Although this book is not explicitly about the Alamo, the unknown, and unanswerable, facts about the battle at the old mission provide some of the best examples of how these gaps in our knowledge still insist on our attention when they involve a question of significant concern.  One striking example is the question of David Crockett’s death.

Crockett’s death is not a subject of this book, but the nature of his death is important because it either confirms or brings into question the all-or-nothing, “Victory or Death” commitment that the Alamo’s defenders claimed. If the larger than life Crockett did not fight to the death but allowed himself to be taken prisoner, and then to be executed, the commitment was not absolute, and the Alamo heroes may seem somehow diminished. Some Texans—and more Americans—need to believe that heroes give all: they do not yield, they disdain compromise, and their glorious deaths, so different from most, live in memory as inspiration to us all.

I do not know what really happened to David Crockett. I believe he and his comrades were as brave as human beings can be. Even if he surrendered, he might have had a good reason for doing so, such as trying to save others from execution. Crockett was not only a brave man but a man with a history of rhetorical accomplishment.

But when we reach this point, we complicate the story. Many demand that it continue to be clear and simple, regardless of the “truth” of Crockett’s death.

With the story of the Goliad campaign, we find almost no uncomplicated truths, real or imagined.  The story is more resonant with our own confounding times than with what we think of as the past. We know that Colonel James Fannin received an urgent request to march to the relief of the Alamo, delivered by James Bonham, but we do not know exactly what Bonham said, or how Fannin replied, and likewise we do not know all of the reasons for Fannin’s subsequent actions. And there are many more questions about the events near Goliad 175 years ago. The Goliad story is not so often remembered as the dramatic battle of the Alamo, but in some ways Goliad is more “present.”  Ambiguity, compromise, frustrated good will, hovering dangers—all of these characterize our own time, and our own lives.

My purpose in writing this book was to place some of these questions in the laboratory of fact-based fiction in order to suggest, in the full human context of the story, what likely or plausibly occurred, and then to find how these occurrences might change our perceptions of the Revolution or in any case add something to our understanding of it.

Do I believe that this so-called laboratory is either necessary or superior to genuine historical scholarship? No. But some questions, including many of the most important, will never be answered definitively. Yet we will always ask them. This book is a respectful response to a few of those questions.

John Willingham

Portland, Oregon, November 2010