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The Edge of Freedom–Review in Southwestern Historical Quarterly

By Bob Cavendish,  from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 115 (April, 2012): 428-429.

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. Historical 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. 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? 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.

The Edge of Freedom is not a broad strategic view of the Goliad campaign 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.

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