It’s been a disturbing year for books and teaching in Texas. Following the Legislature’s passage of a “critical race theory” law that restricts how teachers can talk about racism, history, and current events in classrooms, Republican state leaders have doubled down on attempts to quash teaching of subjects they deem to cause “discomfort.” Governor Greg Abbott and some GOP lawmakers have proposed banning books related to race and sexuality from school libraries. Fort Worth state Representative Matt Krause recently identified 850 such books–largely written by women, people of color, and LGBTQ authors–that offend his sensibilities. The flurry of activity is already having an effect: Earlier this month, a San Antonio school district said it would review more than 400 books from Krause’s list that are part of its libraries.
So it’s fitting, then, that many books published by Texans or about Texas this year offer challenges and correctives to harmful systems and mythologies. The Observer staff rounded up some of our favorites that we’ve reviewed, excerpted from, or otherwise devoured this year. Some serve as critical history lessons on pivotal moments in state history. They cover Juneteenth, the death penalty, COVID-19, and more. And they make two points abundantly clear. One: There’s a lot more to know about Texas if you’re willing to learn. And two: Amid everything, 2021 has been a banner year for Texas books.
Forget the Alamo, by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford
In Forget the Alamo, a trio of Texas writers challenge what they call the “Heroic Anglo Narrative” that’s long been taught about the Battle of the Alamo. “As they explain it, and as Chicano writers, activists, and communities have long agreed, the events that occurred at the Alamo have been mythologized and used to demonize Mexicans in Texas history and obscure the role of slavery,” writes Observer contributor Nic Yeager. The book so offended Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick that he prompted the Bullock Texas State History Museum to cancel an event with the authors hours before it was scheduled to occur. Patrick, Abbott, and other GOP state leaders are members of the board that oversees the museum.
Code of Silence, by Lise Olsen
In Code of Silence, Observer senior reporter and editor Lise Olsen shines a critical light on the arcane world of federal judges. Because they have lifetime appointments and rarely face consequences for bad behavior, some federal judges have been allowed to abuse and harass their staff with near impunity. Code of Silence takes us to Southeast Texas, where a judge accused of sexually assaulting staff is finally brought to justice by a brave whistleblower.
Let the Lord Sort Them, by Maurice Chammah
Other important books about capital punishment have been written by Anthony Graves, an exonerated former death row inmate, and by Texas defense attorneys, but none have delved quite so deeply into Texas’ historical role in the modern death penalty as Let the Lord Sort Them, by Maurice Chammah. Chammah, who covers prisons for the Marshall Project, ties Texas’ embrace of capital punishment to the state’s frontier mythos and history of slavery, lynchings, and racial violence. He also delivers personal narratives from people who have encountered the state’s machinery of death and explores the lasting trauma of the ultimate punishment. The book, writes Observer staff writer Michael Barajas, illustrates how “executions leave a mark on everyone involved.”
The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid, by Lawrence Wright
Pulitzer Prize winner and Austin-based journalist Lawrence Wright appears, along with being a talented writer and reporter, to be a gifted psychic. Long before the coronavirus pandemic began, Wright was already at work on a novel about a future killer disease: The End of October, which debuted in May 2020. He then quickly followed up with a nonfiction narrative about the real COVID-19 plague’s progression that was published in mid-2021. Starting to worry about what he’ll write next?
On Juneteenth, by Annette Gordon-Reed
Native Texan and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed weaves together first-person narrative about her family with historical context and analysis in a series of essays on the importance of Juneteenth, now a federal holiday, which commemorates the announcement of the end of legal slavery in Galveston in 1865. “For anyone who learned history in Texas classrooms, On Juneteenth provides a compelling counter-narrative to familiar stories of the state’s origins,” writes Observer contributor Irene Vázquez. But Gordon-Reed knows that “correcting the historical record isn’t easy,” writes Vázquez, who quotes from the book: “The chief difficulty lies in how people of color can be fit into the legends and myths about Texas when the actual historical experiences of Indians, Blacks, and Mexicans wreak havoc with those legends and myths.”
On the Porch, by W. Chase Peeler
Terlingua is a place that seems to encapsulate elements of the Texas mythos. Ruggedly individual, far away from civilization, a gathering place for creative minds—and home to the world’s biggest chili cookoff. In On the Porch, writer W. Chase Peeler tells the story of the far West Texas town from a musical perspective—the titular porch has been a magnet for musicians for decades. Jam sessions here can last 10 hours and include 20 players. Readers will hear about the giant mosquito sculpture welded from old car parts, and folks who live so far off-grid that their homes are visible only by plane. Reporter Julie Poole writes in the Observer that “Peeler’s sentences soar most when he’s describing the landscape of Terlingua, so much so that it’s impossible not to daydream about seeking out this incredible town, where at night ‘the Milky Way appears, its entire length clearly visible like a streak of powdered sugar flung across the sky.’”
Atlas of the Heart, by Brene Brown
Brene Brown’s new book, which explores human emotions and connection, is a continuation of the University of Houston social work professor’s folksy writing style that combines riveting research, delivered—especially in audiobook versions—in a decidedly Texas twang.
The Accommodation, by Jim Schutze
A 34-year-old book republished in September, The Accommodation is a searing account of racial terror in the City of Dallas that “unearths a painful past with poignant provocation,” writes Observer staff writer Gus Bova. Prior to republication, the rare book was passed around like literary contraband among young Dallasites of a progressive bent. Now, thanks to Deep Vellum press, the work—whose style and content remain provocative—is available to all with an interest in North Texas’ troubled past.
God Spare the Girls, by Kelsey McKinney
The debut novel from journalist and Texan Kelsey McKinney is set in the fictional town of Hope, Texas, where the family of a megachurch pastor is consumed by scandal when he has an affair with a member of the church. In a review, former Observer digital editor Sunny Sone writes that the book, which follows the pastor’s two daughters, is a “corrective” to the Biblical story of Lot: “The plot hasn’t changed much—the father, a man drenched in holiness, still betrays the women in his family—but the perspective has.”
Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Water of the World, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
El Paso authors rarely get the recognition they deserve from the wider literary world, but Benjamin Alire Sáenz is the exception. Critics have lavished praise on Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante books; along with accumulating top honors in young adult fiction, the first book in the series has been optioned for a movie starring Eva Longoria. The second installment of the series, published this year, follows two young gay men falling in love on the Texas-Mexico border. More than a love story, Sáenz’s book explores deeper ideas (What does it mean to belong?), making the novel an enjoyable, memorable, and thoughtful journey. Sáenz told the Observer he’s somewhat baffled by his books’ critical reception, and that he knows success can “be as fleeting as a rainstorm in the desert.”