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glenn_frankelTexas’ larger-than-life identity is founded on a number of myths, and few are more compelling than the story of Cynthia Ann Parker. In 1836, the nine-year-old Parker was taken from her north-central Texas home by Comanches, who had raided the Parker homestead and killed her family. She lived with them for 24 years, wedding and giving birth to three children, before being recovered and returned to her family by a group of Texas Rangers.

It’s an old trope–the maiden in distress–but the reality of Parker’s story is infinitely more complex. Pulitzer Prize-winner and director of the University of Texas School of Journalism Glenn Frankel seeks to untangle the complex knots of truth and myth in his recent book The Searchers.

Parker’s abduction would inspire countless retellings, most notably Alan LeMay’s classic 1954 western novel The Searchers, which in turn inspired the 1956 John Wood movie by the same name starring John Wayne. With each retelling, the story changed, got bigger, and more symbolic of Texas identity.

Frankel traces the evolution of the Parker story through the pride and politics of Texas’ pioneer era, poring over early retellings of Parker’s abduction, and follows its ultimate journey to the myth-making machinery of the pulp novel industry and golden-era Hollywood. Throughout, he tells the stories of the people behind the myth, from Cynthia Anne  and her son Quanah Parker, who went on to become famous in western lore as “the last free chief of the Comanches,” to filmmaker John Ford and John Wayne, whose legends are as tied up in the story as the Parkers’ are.

Frankel unwinds the story with a delicate balancing act between the facts surrounding Parker’s abduction and return and an appreciation for the mythology that has grown up around them. This isn’t just an attempt to tell the “true story” of Cynthia Ann Parker–it’s an exegesis of the way myths are made.

The book has been getting rave reviews, with The New York Times calling it “vivid” and “revelatory.”  The Washington Post was similarly impressed, as was CNN, which has an interview with Frankel here.

It’s an especially interesting topic for Texas, and one worth hearing Frankel speak about. He’ll be at Brazos Books in Houston on Thursday the 18th at 7 PM to read from the book and talk about how Texas makes its myths.

Since the 1975-64-87_web2012 presidential election, much has been said about America’s shifting demographic makeup and its deeper political and cultural meanings. Texas has seen some of the most dramatic of these shifts, so it’s only fitting a Texas museum would present exhibitions exploring America’s continuously shifting notions of identity.

Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum has put together a double header of sorts on the subject. “We the People: Picturing American Identity” takes a decidedly wide focus approach, surveying painting, photography, sculpture and other media from the 1850s to the 20th century and beyond for insights into four questions: Who is America, Who is the American Woman, Who Shapes America and Who Defines America? The questions are both rooted in history and urgently contemporary, and the works on display provide a kind of visual timeline for our country’s complex, contradictory and always dynamic struggle with its self-conception. “We the People” runs until September 6.

Also at the Carter Museum is “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” another rumination on identity that is both more tightly focused in its subject matter and ambiguous in its implications. In the late 1970s, Bearden created magnificently-colored, highly-stylized depictions of Homer’s Odyssey with water color and collage, depicting all the characters as black women and men. The work both universalizes the epic poem and presents a  jumping-off point for discussion about the long journey black identity has taken through a world usually dominated by white artists and writers. “Romare Bearden” runs until August 11.

Both exhibits contextualize and complicate debates going on at state and national levels, giving viewers new (and historic) perspectives on America’s ever-dynamic identity crises.

MotorcyclesThough the term “Civil Rights” usually brings up memories of the 1960s, many of the struggles and issues surrounding the movement are startlingly contemporary. This is especially true in Texas’ Mexican-American communities. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn key portions of the Voting Rights Act, the increasing number of Mexican-Americans in Texas, and intense battles over issues like immigration reform make the current political moment as vital a time as any for a discussion on Mexican-American civil rights.

One upcoming contribution to that conversation is Justica: The Struggle for Mexican-American Civil Rights in Dallas, Texas 1920-2012, a multimedia exhibition put on by Dallas’ Latino Cultural Center and the Dallas Mexican-American Historical League. Tracing the often under-reported stories of workers, activists, political leaders and other  civil rights figures in Dallas through the past century, the exhibit touches on Mexican- Americans’ struggle for equality during the Great Depression, through the turbulent 1960s, up to current issues, visiting  key events and important people along the way. It features video interviews and oral histories from Dallas civil rights leaders, an interactive timeline, and panel discussions about issues related to the continuing struggle for Mexican-American civil rights.

The exhibit kicks off this Friday with an opening reception at 6 PM at the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas. It runs until August 31, and will include other special events TBA.

Marion Winik
Marion Winik

Though she works as a creative writing professor at the University of Baltimore these days, it’s fair to say that acclaimed memoirist Marion Winik got her start in Texas. Her personal essays appeared in the Austin Chronicle in late 1980s and 1990s, where NPR’s Austin-based John Burnett read them and helped Winik snag appearances on All Things Considered. Increasing attention led to a creative nonfiction fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Publication of a series of memoirs and essay collections followed.

While Winik’s writing career has the look of steady success, her personal life has seen plenty of challenges. Winik lost her first husband to AIDS, lived through the ups and downs of single motherhood, and saw her second marriage end in divorce. Through it all, Winik kept writing, turning out deeply personal but accessible books and essay collections like Telling and First Comes Love, which the New York Times said possesses “an unblinking narrative tone that is frequently very funny, in spite of the fact that much of what [Winik] has to impart is painfully sad.”

Winik’s latest, Highs in the Low Fifties, relates her adventures as a middle-aged woman re-entering the dating world. She approaches the topic with her characteristic no-holds-barred honesty, plumbing both the emotional depths and surface hilarity of her subject. Check out an excerpt over at the Austin Chronicle.

Winik will talk about Highs in the Low Fifties on Wednesday, 7 PM, at Book People in Austin. Come ask about writing, dating, what Austin was like before it got so hip, or pretty much anything else. As her memoirs reveal, Winik has pretty much seen it all.

When Observer staff and interns aren’t writing articles, shooting video, posting blogs or keeping the lights on, we’re avid readers. So I thought it’d be fun to poll the office on our summer books. Here’s what we’re reading when we’re not writing.

DivideBrad Tyer, Managing Editor: “I just finished Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall, photographer/writer Krista Schlyer’s deeply informative and visually head-turning ode to the rich borderland ecosystems being undone in the mad—in every sense of the word—rush to build a wall between one side of a line in the sand and the other. Should be required reading for any legislator with a hand in federal immigration policy.”

Krissi Trumeter, Controller—“I’m reading The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. The famous Pooh (that bear that loves honey) signifies an existence of simplicity and joy, appreciating the life we have versus the life we think we want … In this tiny book, Pooh bestows the wisdom of how to smile when the world seems sour.”

Caitlin Perrone, Editorial Intern: “I’m currently reading Khaled Hosseini’s new book And the Mountains Echoed, which is a multigenerational story that details the lives of an Afghan family while also covering the history of the country. Hosseini is the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, which are known for their haunting depictions of life in Afghanistan. I’m preparing for another tragic story that might cause some tears, but don’t let that scare you. I cannot recommend this author more.”

Jonathan McNamara, Web Editor: “Maybe it’s how inescapable Brad Pitt has become thanks to his multibillion-dollar action flick World War Z, but I’ve been drawn back to the Anne Rice classic Interview With the Vampire. So far I’ve found the first in Rice’s Vampire Chronicles to be full of whiny-ass self-loathing on the part of principal character Louis. Still beats the hell the out of anything Stephanie Meyer can cobble together, though.”

Emily DePrang, Staff Writer (Houston Office): “I’m reading a collection of short stories by SearchersRaymond Chandler called The Simple Art of Murder. He’s the detective fiction writer best known for novels like The Big Sleep, but I think his short stories are way more fun because he wrote them fast, for pulp magazines. Since he’s not stuck with his choices for 200 pages like he would be in a novel, you can see him playing around on the page. In “I’ll Be Waiting,” Chandler obviously just wrote a description of a girl listening to jazz that he really liked, and then had to figure out how to built a crazy detective plot around it so that he could publish, ‘The light in there was dim, but the violet of her eyes almost hurt.’ There are probably two phrases on every page that make me swoon.”

And finally, your humble books blogger has been reading The Searchers, UT professor Glenn Frankel’s book about the classic John Ford western of the same name. The movie itself was inspired by a novel by Alan LeMay based roughly on the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker’s 1836 abduction by Comanches in the Texas frontier. So just to keep score, you’re now reading a book blog about me reading a book that’s about a movie that’s about a book based loosely on actual events. How meta…

Hutchison on Powerful Women


The furor over the Texas Legislature’s anti-abortion shenanigans has made this week all about strong Texas women—we’re looking at you, state Sen. Wendy Davis. That makes this a perfect time for a book talk about courageous women in Texas history, right?

Former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison will be talking about her book, Unflinching Courage: Pioneering Women Who Shaped Texas, on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Plano. Republican Hutchison comes at the topic from a decidedly conservative viewpoint, though she considers herself an advocate for working women and has at times stepped away from her party’s far-right contingent on issues like abortion.

Hutchison’s book is mostly about the role women played in the often-mythologized settling of Texas. Interestingly, one of the stories Hutchison relates is that of Cynthia Ann Parker, whose 1839 abduction by Comanches and subsequent rescue 21 years later are foundational stories in the narrative of Texas settlement. The facts and circumstances of the story–including Parker’s agency in her rescue—have  been heavily debated. UT journalism professor Glenn Frankel’s recent book The Searchers uses Parker’s story to interrogate the mythologizing of Texas’ founding legends through the lens of the classic John Ford western.

Make no mistake, Hutchison’s book reflects her conservative perspective, celebrating the traditional roles played by white, mostly privileged, 19th and 20th century Texas women like Margaret Lea Houston, wife of Sam Houston, and Mary Ann Goodnight, wife of the powerful cattle baron. The book sometimes veers into a celebration of the ways in which these women supported their powerful husbands, but it also explores the power they wielded in their own right.

The Dallas Morning News reviewed the book recently, and you can find an excerpt and an interview with Hutchison from NPR here.

Whether you love her politics or loathe them, it’s hard to argue that Hutchison isn’t a pioneer herself. She’s the first woman to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, a position she held for 20 years before retiring in January. Her unique position as a powerful, conservative woman makes her talk about Unflinching Courage an interesting opportunity to consider women’s history and ask hard questions about their current status in Texas.


Terry McMillan
Terry McMillan

This weekend in Texas offers tons of Juneteenth festivities, and if you’re in the Austin area on Saturday, you’ll want to head over to the Carver Library for the 7th annual African American Book Festival.

This year’s festival features a host of great speakers, including headliner/bestselling author Terry McMillan, whose novels include A Day Late and a Dollar Short and Waiting to Exhale.

Another highlight will be a discussion of The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s epic nonfiction narrative about the Great Migration. Warmth has been one of the most highly lauded nonfiction books of the past few years. The New Yorker called it a “deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book” that encapsulates not only the experience of northbound African Americans fleeing the South, but also much of the American 20th century. Other reviewers were also impressed, including The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, which compared Wilkerson’s narrative skill and prose touch to Toni Morrison and Zore Neale Hurston.

Admission is free, and you can find the full schedule here.


DavidBERG_MartineFougeronDavid Berg, a veteran Texas attorney, mines the intersections of family, justice and mortality in his new book Run, Brother, Run: A Memoir of Murder in my Family, released this month. Berg will talk about the book at Houston’s Brazos Books on Friday at 7 p.m.

The memoir recounts the story of Berg’s brother’s murder and the subsequent trial and acquittal of the alleged killer, Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody.

In 1968, Alan Berg was found dead in a ditch outside Houston with a gunshot wound to his head. Testimony from Charles Harrelson’s girlfriend at the time put him at the scene of the crime, though high-profile defense attorneys would later present witnesses saying Harrelson was elsewhere. Harrelson was acquitted in the Berg case; later the same year he would be convicted of another murder, for which he served five years in prison. In 1979, Harrelson received two life terms for the killing of a federal judge.

Though rife with courtroom drama and allegations of shady legal dealings, Berg’s book is more than a true crime tale. It’s also a memoir of Berg’s relationship with his older brother, and his own boyhood and early adulthood in Houston. Along the way, Berg also explores his relationship with the Texas justice system. “The first autopsy report I read was my brother’s,” he writes. Berg began practicing law the same year his brother died, going on to become a successful trial lawyer who represented politicians and won cases before the Supreme Court.

His brother’s murder cast a long shadow over his life—he wouldn’t see a movie with Woody Harrelson in it for years, for instance—and the intensely personal connection gives the book emotional heft and resonance well beyond the courtroom.

The book has already received plenty of positive attention, including favorable mentions from NPR and this New York Times review by Texas’ Christopher Kelly. You can read an excerpt of the book at The Daily Beast.


Talking Texan

After these crazy maps showing America’s speech patterns went viral over the past week, it seems like everyone’s talking about accents and dialects. The maps were designed by a grad student in statistics and eventually found their way to the news website Business Insider, where they generated 17 million page views from folks eager to know who exactly says “y’all” and calls soda “pop.”

It’s safe to assume a fair number of those views came from Texas, where pride in our infamous drawl and twang is part of the state’s identity. But is Texas losing its unique ways of speaking? According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, slowly but surely. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that only about a third of the native Texans they interviewed used the distinctive vowel combinations that characterize Texas accents, down from almost 80 percent in the 1980s.

texas_sayings_and_folkloreYou can find some great audio examples of people talking Texan at the mother of all pop linguistics websites, started in 2010 by a hobbyist named Rick Aschmann. Click Texas on the map and you’ll be taken to a treasure trove of video links to famous Texans exercising their native tongue.

Researchers claim the erosion of specifically Texan speech is a result of the ever-broadening influence of pop culture, urbanization, and the influx of new residents from other parts of the country. They note that the decline is most prevalent among younger Texans.

A posible corrective to the disappearance of native speech—the state’s distinctive sayings, if not its accents—is the April publication of Texas Sayings & Folklore (Bright Sky Press), by Mavis Parrott Kelsey, Sr.

Feel free to add your favorite Texasism in the comments.

New Yorker writer George Packer has penned a complex but cohesive portrait of American decline in The Unwinding, Anis Shivani writes in the Observer‘s June issue.

Developers connive with local government—both aided by Wall Street sharks eager to securitize lousy mortgages in pursuit of out-sized profits—to bring middle-class investors to their knees. This tale has been oft-told, but Packer’s skill in deploying novelistic depth of characterization makes the connections between high and low—normally segregated classes—all too apparent.

Within Packer’s sweeping survey of American ills, it’s his skill at connecting the dots between seemingly disparate characters and events that makes Packer’s work so compelling, Shivani suggests. Read the whole review here.

The Dallas Morning News also gave The Unwinding a favorable review, calling it “long-form journalism at its best.”

And while having your book described as “a 51hL5KA3ohL._SL500_AA300_painful thing to read” by The New York Times is often not a good thing, in this case reviewer Dwight Garner is describing his visceral reaction to the book’s power. Garner says The Unwindinghums—with sorrow, with outrage and with compassion…

The Boston Globe is somewhat less impressed, calling the book “compelling at times,” but pegging it as perhaps Packer’s “worst non-fiction book” due to its fragmented reliance on stories already familiar to many readers.