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Full Reviews: The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution

NEW:  By Bob Cavendish, Austin Community College, from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly

The Edge of Freedom: A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution. By John Willingham.

(Portland, Ore.: Inkwater Press, 2011. Pp. 404. Map, appendix. ISBN 9781592994465, 22.95 paper.)

“Include, also,” the review guidelines for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly state, “an evaluation of the author’s success in achieving purpose.” What, then, should the reader infer of John Willingham’s purpose in this “fact-based novel” of the Goliad massacre? Indeed, what ought to be the purpose of any historical fiction offered to historians and aficionados of Southwest history?

Intrigued with certain ambiguities surrounding the defeats at the Alamo and at Goliad, Willingham attempts to “suggest answers to mostly unanswerable questions,” “imagining and creating” as a novelist, while remaining close to traditional chronology. Historic fiction and docudramas have become, increasingly, the stuff of public history. How the past is understood, Daniel Aaron noted, is pertinent. Good historical fiction respects its framework while telling its story. How well does The Edge of Freedom pay homage to this revolutionary past?

Beginning with the San Antonio River ferry partnership between Carlos de la Garza and John Bower (both actual figures from the Texas Revolution), The Edge of Freedom narrates the impact of revolutionary Texas driving the two men into separate and rival camps. The narrative shifts easily among the competing perspectives of the Texians (Bower and Fannin’s command), the Tejano (de la Garza), and the Mexican (General José Urrea and his command). Here are the familiar events: James Fannin’s feeble move to reinforce the Alamo, the withdrawal from Goliad, the battle at Coleto Creek, and the infamous Goliad massacre. This novel’s “fiction,” however, is not in the sequence or nature of action but in the personal episodes and period dialogue. The Edge of Freedom is the human tragedy around Goliad in March 1836, of Fannin’s command indecision and Urrea’s struggle between duty and humanity. Conventional historians’ interpretations emerge from reports, letters, and diaries–reliable, “eyewitness stuff,” long on fact but sometimes ponderous. Despite the occasionally melodramatic language, “somewhere between the elaborate and formal diction of the late eighteenth century and the more florid language of the Civil War era” (359), we gain an appreciation of the consequences emanating from decisions and commitments reached by the various “adventurers,” ranchers, commanders, and others who are a part of this story.

Good historical fiction recaptures the passion and immediacy at times absent within the bounds of standard chronicles.

The Edge of Freedom succeeds as a “fact-based novel” in its compelling blend of historical sequence and imagination: what likely occurred, and why?

The Edge of Freedom is not a broad strategic view of the Goliad cam-paign but is closer to the tactical level. Unlike Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, Willingham’s The Edge of Freedom remains closely tethered to actual events. James Michener once argued that meaningful literature inquires into real motives and behavior of humanity. The Edge of Freedom is an inventive glimpse into the choices and dilemmas that plague people caught up in political turbulence.

How accurate should a fact-based, historical novel be? The “typical historical novelist,” said Michener, is “a fairly honest researcher” who “knows what the facts are and ignores or abuses them at his or her peril.” Willingham’s annotated bibliography of fifty-seven primary and secondary sources follows an epilogue for seven of the principals (including Fannin). Together these two elements indicate a respect he has for the era but more importantly, the purpose for which he writes.

The Edge of Freedom works best as a supplement to, instead of an alternative to, classic works of Texas’s revolution. Read alongside one of the contemporary general histories of the Texas republic or the Texas revolution (my vote: Stephen Hardin’s excellent Texian Iliad), The Edge of Freedom provides an enriching glimpse into the tragedy whose ghosts were evoked thirty-six days later on the San Jacinto prairies.

By Carolina Castillo Crimm, Ph.D., Professor of History, Sam Houston State University, and Fellow of the Texas State Historical Association

In this thrilling, emotional story of the Texas Revolution, John Willingham focuses on  Goliad and Southeast Texas and the conflicts and dilemmas faced by individuals on all sides—Tejanos, Mexicans and Anglos—caught up in the terrible and tragic events leading up to the executions of Fannin’s men at Goliad. Carlos de la Garza, the Tejano rancher on the San Antonio River, and his neighbor John Bower are the central characters in this fascinating personal view of the months before the bloody executions. Willingham uses fiction with a deft hand to explore the thoughts of the many characters involved on both the Texian and Mexican sides. He admirably helps his readers understand the difficult choices made by those caught up in the civil war which tore the country apart.  He shares with his readers the horrors of the execution and he also details the successes of Don Carlos and Francita Alavez in saving some of the Texian prisoners….This is a book that takes history and makes it not only readable but far more understandable and approachable through the use of fiction in investigating the characters involved in this critical part of Texas History.

The Military Writers Society of America

Reviewed by John R.R. Faulkner, January 2012

If you are interested in Texas history beyond the Alamo, this novel is appropriate. The cover has a photo silhouette of the old mission, a moody representation of the era of the Texas Revolution. Blending historical figures with fictional characters, Willingham brings 1835 and 1836 Texas to life. The book allows the reader to appreciate the conflict engendered in local residents confronted with an independent Texas and their loyalty to Mexico.

 

Filled with historical situations and detail, the book is a slow but interesting read. The most intriguing character is the Mexican General Urrea, who walked a fine line between politics and soldiering. His biggest conflict was trying to appease Santa Anna while avoiding war crimes. After engaging with the Texans, he fought to balance his own judgment of the defenders as frail human beings trying to change their situation with the demands of a leader who says kill them, they are pirates and terrorist.

 

After reading this story, I’m reminded of the best last line in the movie, “Lone Star.” Look it up.

 

Midwest Book Review Midwest Book Review

Heroism is expecting failure yet acting anyway. “The Edge of Freedom” is a historical novel that John Willingham states he has researched well to stay true to most of the facts of the Texas revolution and the battle for the Alamo, telling a dual story of Texan James Fannin and Mexican Jose de Urrea. Drawing a dramatic personal drama with the backdrop of the famous battle, “The Edge of Freedom” is an exciting and slightly educational [academic] read, highly recommended.

Brief Pre-publication Reviews (6)

The Edge of Freedom provides a new and fascinating means of getting into the heads and hearts of the characters involved in the Texas Revolution. Although fictional, the book provides accurate historic details that will give all those interested Texas history a new appreciation …. ” –Carolina Castillo Crimm, Ph.D.

“What the author of historical fiction must do—as John Willingham has—is to take the historical record about people and events, and use them as secure anchor-points.  Then one must leap off from there and weave the story, as if with spider silk, to catch our attention and involvement by adding conversation, observation and emotional insight….The writing is spare and polished, reminiscent of Hemingway in describing a world that is almost completely masculine.  Willingham also possesses that relatively rare gift of having a good ear for 19th Century conversation.”—Celia Hayes, author of the Adelsverein Trilogy and the Daughter of Texas

“Rather than diminishing Texas history, The Edge of Freedom makes it human without destroying its heroic spirit.  That is no small feat. This is the story of Fannin who surrendered and was executed, not that of the Alamo where men fought to the death and became immortal.  One reads here about a man of flesh and blood who made the best decisions he could in confusing, even desperate circumstances.  It is Fannin’s mortality and indecisiveness that make the story compelling.”—Larry Knight, Ph.D.

The Edge of Freedom … is destined to capture the imagination of both the historian and casual reader.” – Miguel Levario, Ph.D.

The Edge of Freedom by John Willingham refreshingly blends fact and fiction…. The novel is unbiased and modern in its approach to Colonel James Walker Fannin, General José de Urrea and the tragedy which took place at Goliad.  The Edge of Freedom is a novel for anyone interested in a contemporary perspective on early Texas and the Texas Revolution.  Willingham is an obvious scholar who has done his research.– Sondra Shands, Associate Professor of History, TSTC Harlingen

“John Willingham has written a great and compelling story of one of the most dramatic moments in Texas history.  His moving portrayal of those final days at Goliad brings the reader face to face with the harsh, tragic reality of what happened that March week in 1836. In graphic detail suitable to the horror of those events, Willingham takes us from Fannin’s fateful and error-filled decisions, across the prairie to the Coleto Creek confrontation, and to the final moments of 350 men destined to die without a chance to fight on their own terms. The clarion call of “Remember Goliad” shouted four weeks later on the San Jacinto prairie comes alive once more. The Edge of Freedom is indeed an edgy historical novel sure to open the eyes of its readers to that fateful moment in Texas.”–Paul Spellman, Ph.D., author of Race to Velasco, Spindletop Boom Days, and Captain J. A. Brooks, Texas Ranger

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