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"Harrigan, surveying thousands of years of history that lead to the banh mi restaurants of Houston and the juke joints of Austin, remembering the forgotten as well as the famous, delivers an exhilarating blend of the base and the ignoble, a very human story indeed. [Big Wonderful Thing is] as good a state history as has ever been written and a must-read for Texas aficionad "Harrigan, surveying thousands of years of history that lead to the banh mi restaurants of Houston and the juke joints of Austin, remembering the forgotten as well as the famous, delivers an exhilarating blend of the base and the ignoble, a very human story indeed. [Big Wonderful Thing is] as good a state history as has ever been written and a must-read for Texas aficionados."--Kirkus, Starred Review The story of Texas is the story of struggle and triumph in a land of extremes. It is a story of drought and flood, invasion and war, boom and bust, and the myriad peoples who, over centuries of conflict, gave rise to a place that has helped shape the identity of the United States and the destiny of the world. "I couldn't believe Texas was real," the painter Georgia O'Keeffe remembered of her first encounter with the Lone Star State. It was, for her, "the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are." Big Wonderful Thing invites us to walk in the footsteps of ancient as well as modern people along the path of Texas's evolution. Blending action and atmosphere with impeccable research, New York Times best-selling author Stephen Harrigan brings to life with novelistic immediacy the generations of driven men and women who shaped Texas, including Spanish explorers, American filibusters, Comanche warriors, wildcatters, Tejano activists, and spellbinding artists--all of them taking their part in the creation of a place that became not just a nation, not just a state, but an indelible idea. Written in fast-paced prose, rich with personal observation and a passionate sense of place, Big Wonderful Thing calls to mind the literary spirit of Robert Hughes writing about Australia or Shelby Foote about the Civil War. Like those volumes, it is a big book about a big subject, a book that dares to tell the whole glorious, gruesome, epically sprawling story of Texas.


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"Harrigan, surveying thousands of years of history that lead to the banh mi restaurants of Houston and the juke joints of Austin, remembering the forgotten as well as the famous, delivers an exhilarating blend of the base and the ignoble, a very human story indeed. [Big Wonderful Thing is] as good a state history as has ever been written and a must-read for Texas aficionad "Harrigan, surveying thousands of years of history that lead to the banh mi restaurants of Houston and the juke joints of Austin, remembering the forgotten as well as the famous, delivers an exhilarating blend of the base and the ignoble, a very human story indeed. [Big Wonderful Thing is] as good a state history as has ever been written and a must-read for Texas aficionados."--Kirkus, Starred Review The story of Texas is the story of struggle and triumph in a land of extremes. It is a story of drought and flood, invasion and war, boom and bust, and the myriad peoples who, over centuries of conflict, gave rise to a place that has helped shape the identity of the United States and the destiny of the world. "I couldn't believe Texas was real," the painter Georgia O'Keeffe remembered of her first encounter with the Lone Star State. It was, for her, "the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are." Big Wonderful Thing invites us to walk in the footsteps of ancient as well as modern people along the path of Texas's evolution. Blending action and atmosphere with impeccable research, New York Times best-selling author Stephen Harrigan brings to life with novelistic immediacy the generations of driven men and women who shaped Texas, including Spanish explorers, American filibusters, Comanche warriors, wildcatters, Tejano activists, and spellbinding artists--all of them taking their part in the creation of a place that became not just a nation, not just a state, but an indelible idea. Written in fast-paced prose, rich with personal observation and a passionate sense of place, Big Wonderful Thing calls to mind the literary spirit of Robert Hughes writing about Australia or Shelby Foote about the Civil War. Like those volumes, it is a big book about a big subject, a book that dares to tell the whole glorious, gruesome, epically sprawling story of Texas.

30 review for Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas

  1. 5 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    Fine new review at the WSJ: https://www.wsj.com/articles/big-wond... (Paywalled. As always, I'm happy to email a copy to non-subscribers. And, even if you don't read the book, it's a very entertaining review!) A Texas-size history makes clear that the Lone Star state, like the United States as a whole, has always absorbed and resisted newcomers; it also has always made claims to an “exceptional” status. But 944 pp?? Excerpts: Author Harrigan is "as pure a Texan as Larry McMurtry. He has now given Fine new review at the WSJ: https://www.wsj.com/articles/big-wond... (Paywalled. As always, I'm happy to email a copy to non-subscribers. And, even if you don't read the book, it's a very entertaining review!) A Texas-size history makes clear that the Lone Star state, like the United States as a whole, has always absorbed and resisted newcomers; it also has always made claims to an “exceptional” status. But 944 pp?? Excerpts: Author Harrigan is "as pure a Texan as Larry McMurtry. He has now given us a—no other word for it—Texas-sized book about the place he’s called home for decades. Lavishly illustrated, fully annotated, brimming with sass, intelligence, trenchant analysis, literary acumen and juicy details, it is a page-turner that can be read straight through or at random. It is big. It is popular history at its best." "Chapter 9 (“The Texas Dream”) begins: “Just when it seemed that Moses Austin’s long run of bad luck was about to turn, a panther leapt out of a tree and grabbed him in its claws.” Today’s Texas is about to be born." “In Odessa, George Bush learned about the virtues of chicken-fried steak and the inadvisability of wearing his Bermuda shorts among oil-field workers” And here's Sam Houston: “The Texian standard of the single star, borne by the Anglo-Saxon race, shall display its bright folds in Liberty’s triumph on the isthmus of Darien.” Not for nothing is Mimus polyglottos the official avian symbol of the state. In 1927, the legislature proclaimed that the mockingbird “is a singer of distinctive type, a fighter for the protection of his home, falling, if need be, in its defense, like any true Texan.” Since I have a love-hate relationship with the state -- I grew up in Oklahoma, and went to school in Texas -- I'm sure I'll be browsing the thing, at least. But 944 pp.!! In due time . . .

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kerry Pickens

    I have read many of Stephen Harrigan's books on nature, and this Texas history book is his tour de force. I wish high schools would use this book as a Texas history book rather than the boring textbooks they use to teach history. Stephen makes the stories and heroes of Texas come alive in all its diversity.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance

    Texas is a big wonderful thing and this is a big wonderful book about this big wonderful thing. Stephen Harrigan attempts to cover it all in a mere 925 pages: the Alamo; Stephen F(uller) Austin; the Battle of San Jacinto; Judge Roy Bean; Bonnie and Clyde; the Branch Dividian compound in Mt. Carmel; Brown & Root; buffalo soldiers; George H. W. and George W. Bush; Cabeza de Vaca; the Caddo Indians; Camino Real; carpetbaggers; cattle drives; Cherokee Indians; Seven Cities of Cibola; the Civil War; Texas is a big wonderful thing and this is a big wonderful book about this big wonderful thing. Stephen Harrigan attempts to cover it all in a mere 925 pages: the Alamo; Stephen F(uller) Austin; the Battle of San Jacinto; Judge Roy Bean; Bonnie and Clyde; the Branch Dividian compound in Mt. Carmel; Brown & Root; buffalo soldiers; George H. W. and George W. Bush; Cabeza de Vaca; the Caddo Indians; Camino Real; carpetbaggers; cattle drives; Cherokee Indians; Seven Cities of Cibola; the Civil War; Colt revolvers; the Comanches; John Connally; cowboys; Davy Crockett; Crystal City, Texas; Czech and German immigrants; Martin Dies; the Dust Bowl; Dale Evans; Edna Ferber; "Pa" and "Ma" Ferguson; football; Fort Davis; the Galveston hurricane; John Nance Garner; Charles Goodnight; James Hogg; horses; Sam Houston; Humble Oil; Jefferson, Texas; Lyndon Baines Johnson; Janis Joplin; Barbara Jordan; the Karankawas; the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the Kilgore Rangerettes; the King Ranch; the Ku Klux Klan; Jean Lafitte; Tom Landry; lynchings of African-Americans; Mary Kay; mavericks; Larry McMurtry; Mexican-Americans; the moon landing; Nacogdoches, Texas; Jose Antonio Navarro; Madalyn Murray O'Hair; Georgia O'Keeffe; open range; Lee Harvey Oswald; Padre Island; Palo Duro Canyon; Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker; George Parr; the pecan shelling business; the Piney Woods; the prison system; Prohibition; railroads; Reconstruction; the Republic of Texas; Ann Richards; the Rio Grande; Roe v. Wade; the Runaway Scrape; Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna; the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s; Selena; Allan Shivers; slavery; the Southwest Conference; Spanish land grants; Spanish missions; Spindletop; the State Fair of Texas; Tejanos; tenant farmers; "Texas, Our Texas"; the explosion in Texas City, Texas; the Texas Rangers; the University of Texas; Ralph Yarborough; "The Yellow Rose of Texas"; and Lorenzo de Zavala. Whew. All these stories told as if the author were sitting around the campfire, swapping tales. And, even so, the author concludes the book regretting the things he was unable to include.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Steven

    Whew! I had to renew this one past it's three-week checkout period at my local public library. At 829 pages (and almost 3.5 lbs) reading this book is quite a workout. But, I think, quite worth it. Harrigan, a writer for Texas Monthly, tackles the history of Texas in a unique and quite readable way. While he works chronologically from prehistoric times to the present, he has a way of inserting personal recollections that isn't distracting, and is able to re-introduce figures from history in a loop Whew! I had to renew this one past it's three-week checkout period at my local public library. At 829 pages (and almost 3.5 lbs) reading this book is quite a workout. But, I think, quite worth it. Harrigan, a writer for Texas Monthly, tackles the history of Texas in a unique and quite readable way. While he works chronologically from prehistoric times to the present, he has a way of inserting personal recollections that isn't distracting, and is able to re-introduce figures from history in a looping, arcing manner that illustrates how all these names I've heard for years were interconnected. As a person whose family has deep Texas roots, I enjoyed thinking about where my ancestors were and how they related to some of the big events and themes of Texas history, like cattle drives, the Civil War and farming. He writes especially well about the weird world of Texas politics. Harrigan clearly loves Texas and admires the traits that it and its more famous sons and daughters are known for, but he doesn't gush -- and he definitely doesn't shy away from Texas' more shameful and darker chapters. He makes a real effort to illuminate the experiences of indigenous Texans, Mexican-American and African-American Texans, and women. To give you a taste of his writing, here's a snippet from the Epilogue, in which he writes about the steady stream of newcomers that continue to flock to Texas: People viewing Texas from the outside have always recognized that there is something different about it, not just in its expanse but in its attitude also, in its annoying ineradicable mythic presumption. But it's hard to live here and not feel, just a little, that presumption stirring inside of you. So many kinds of people have fought over the geography of Texas for so long, and competed for their places in its ever-changing culture, that there is a kind of harmony of conflict, a hard-earned conviction that the word "Texas" belongs to you as righteously as it does to anyone else. One criticism I have of this book is the maps. They're pretty crude - they give you a general idea of where things are in relation to each other around the state, but they seem a bit cartoon-ish and lack a preciseness that this book deserves. The copious photographs, however, are very welcome.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Elbrackeen Brackeen

    PW 08/19 "Woke history of Tx"

  6. 5 out of 5

    Drew

    An epic book about the story of Texas written from the standpoint not only of the victors, white males, but also from the standpoint of Mexicans, Indians, Tejanos, Blacks and the poor. I can’t recall ever reading a history with such a high bar of objectivity. 830 pages—should have been printed in two volumes. My hand is cramped and my arm is sore from holding. Fortunately I did not drop it on my cat in my lap as it would have done her in. Truly a magnificent book and worthy read!

  7. 4 out of 5

    David Rush

    A fascinating book and I am glad I read it. PROS: *He covers from pre-Columbian times to George W Bush *Thousands of interesting and insightful facts and stories. *He is brutally honest in his telling of an extremely brutal story *He points out similarities separated by years, decades and even centuries *The topics are wide ranging, from traditional history to pop culture. *He has and eye for the quirky *(Like O’ Rip the horned toad who supposedly survived a 31-year hibernation in a courthouse time c A fascinating book and I am glad I read it. PROS: *He covers from pre-Columbian times to George W Bush *Thousands of interesting and insightful facts and stories. *He is brutally honest in his telling of an extremely brutal story *He points out similarities separated by years, decades and even centuries *The topics are wide ranging, from traditional history to pop culture. *He has and eye for the quirky *(Like O’ Rip the horned toad who supposedly survived a 31-year hibernation in a courthouse time capsule ) CONS: *There is so much information you could almost call it an 800 page Texas trivia book *It is mostly chronological but it feels like a literary collage that is is hard to hold it all in your head *The different topics are fun but by the end it is hard to come up with a coherent story of Texas **(Maybe that is his point, though) In Summary While the first half is somewhat traditional storytelling by then end it seems like he is just throwing in those stories he happens to remember from his life. Not a bad thing but still it is a noticeable, but maybe I was hoping for at least as much focus in the last half as the first half. Review Epilogue OK, I have padded out the top of this review enough that I think most readers will have stopped by now. I don’t want any crazy Internet Texians attacking me. THAT was a depressing book! NOTE: While not born here I have lived in Texas for most of my life and there are many, many, wonderful people and places here...BUT… I think the moral of this book is that there are an awful lot of assholes in Texas. And so much cruelty in its founding and history it is hard to stomach. Of course the rest of the country (or world, for sure) is no paradise, but we are talking about Texas now. At its genesis Texas was bound up with slavery and without it this land might still be part of Mexico. Well maybe, but maybe not. Anyway: (the newly independent Mexico) True to its federalist philosophy, it left the states to decide whether human bondage would be tolerated. This was a crucial question for Texas. Without slavery, Austin was convinced, “we will have nothing but poverty for a long time, perhaps the rest of out lives.” - Pg. 111 Benjamin Lunday, a Quaker activist…had no illusions about the “real objects” of the Texas Revolution - “To wrest the large and valuable territory of Texas from the Mexican Republic, in order to re-establish the system of slavery; open a vast and profitable slavemarket therein; and ultimately, annex it to the Unted States.” Pg. 200 And DAMN the part of this book telling about reconstruction is a horror show. Oh yeah, the relentless demeaning of non-Anglos is, well it is just depressing. Even if you factor out our current cultural norms it seems Texans took a special glee in hurting former slaves, native Americans and the Hispanic population. But back to the assholery, and I could dwell a long of historical mega A-holes for a while but let’s jump to the 20th century. (In 1954) The world’s largest Methodist church was in Dallas,so was the world’s largest Presbyterian church. So was the world’s largest Baptist Church. The fifty-year-old pastor of the First Baptists church, shepherding a flock of 18,500 Dallas souls, was an avuncular, craggy-faced premillennialist named W.A. Criswell, who preached hard against integration and racial equality. (“they are not our folks. They are not our kind. The don’t belong to the same world in which we live.”) Pg. 689 Yeah I know it was a different time, but still, an A-hole. Decades later, Claytie was continuing his father’s work, extracting groundwater to irrigate his twelve thousand acres. When asked on the campaign trail whether the springs might come back if he stopped pumping thirty million gallons of water a day from the aquifer, he was direct. “They might, but I’m not going to do it.” Pg. 793 Again, A-hole There are more A-holes, plenty of them with many of them being politicians, but what is the point? Of course there are exceptions. While most were eager to join the confederation many of the German immigrants wanted nothing to do with it and they also viewed slavery for the evil that it was. So it was possible to not be a fan of slavery but most Texans made the choice for it. In the little hill country town of Comfort, which is about fifty miles northwest of San Antonio, a granite obelisk sits in a patch of parkland on a bluff above Cypress Creek. Three German words are carved on to the southern face of the shaft: Treue Dr Union – True to the Union. Pg 296 And while we learn the Comanches were mean SOBs to the settlers as well as most other tribes in the area, I do love this quote. I was born under the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and everything drew a free breath… I know every stream and wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived over that country. I live like my fathers before me and like them I lived happily…If the Texans had kept out of my country, there might have been peace…But it is too late. The whites have the country which we loved, and we wish only to wander on the prairie til we die. Comanche Chief Ten Bears – pg 336 That’s it, but I want to note some things to see or remember White shaman mural Muldoon Catholics "Waddies" as the term they used for Cowboys (Gail Borden) He was also a buzzing inventor who would later try to market an amphibious conveyance called a “terraqueous machine” and the repulsive-sounding “meat biscuit,” which also went by the name of “Portable Desiccated Soup Bread.” The meat biscuit was life sustaining but unappetizing, and it never quite found its market. Borden would have much better success with his next product: condensed milk. PG 137 Dubois built an elegant legation on a hill overlooking the new capital - it’s still there, one of the oldest surviving buildings in Austin. Pg 221 the ultimate frontier insult of shaving one of their horses. Pg. 222 The flashier uniforms – sometimes including leopard skin pants – tended to belong to the cavalry, and that was where most volunteers wanted to be. “It was found very difficult to raise infantry in Texas,” wrote a British military observer, “as no Texan walks a yard if he can help it.” Pg. 287

  8. 4 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    Ideally, I'd give it 3.5 stars. But, given all the hype around it? And in anticipation of yet more? Three stars it is. And why? On the big picture side, this isn't totally a Gertrude Stein book, but ... to some degree, yes, "there's no there there." Harrington may have laid out a marker of popularizing history that doesn't repeat Texas legends ad nauseum. He's good at that. But, especially coming from someone who's a novelist? I found it kind of boring. I am not sure what he could have done to rectif Ideally, I'd give it 3.5 stars. But, given all the hype around it? And in anticipation of yet more? Three stars it is. And why? On the big picture side, this isn't totally a Gertrude Stein book, but ... to some degree, yes, "there's no there there." Harrington may have laid out a marker of popularizing history that doesn't repeat Texas legends ad nauseum. He's good at that. But, especially coming from someone who's a novelist? I found it kind of boring. I am not sure what he could have done to rectify it —other than not try to bite this whole enchilada off, as something that's not really novelistically inclined, especially if you're deliberately legend-killing. I did have a couple of specific nits to pick, which were going to guarantee a four-star rating before I realized it's just not "jazzy." First, last I checked, I'm still in the United States, not the CSA. Given Southern names to the major Civil War battles just lost me. Related to that, though he did OK on not Reconstruction Republican Gov. Edmund J. Davis totally under the bus, overall, his treatment of Reconstruction was ... bland within the above blandness. I think it was the Texas Observer that said he did best when focused on "Great Men" (and Women) portions of his history. He probably should have done that even more. Second? I don't like Texans trying to "possess" Georgia O'Keefe. She wound up in New Mexico, and while her love for the Southwest may have been first sparked by Palo Duro Canyon, when she wanted to settle down, it was at Abiquiu, not the Texas Panhandle. So, 500 pages of vignettes of, say, the Nacogdoches world — Spanish, French, Angl0 — then Sam Houston, then E.J. Davis, then Quanah, then maybe Pappy O'Daniel, then maybe Cactus Jack, then the basics on LBJ, then maybe the man who made Shrub Bush president: Bob Bullock. Another way to look at this book just dawned on me. It's probably worth another star as a popularizing history of the state for non-Texans and recent move-ins. Other than that? If you know non-legendary Texas history, you can move on. One of the few things I learned from this book, really, was that cowboys of the 1800s were sometimes called waddies. And, no, I don't care if Lawrence Wright is one of the primo blurbers of this book. After all, I three-starred HIS book on Texas history and culture too.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Porter Broyles

    This is a hard book for me to review. It is one of the best overviews of Texas History that I've read, but I've read so much Texas history that it was hard (for me) to stay interested at times. I can't think of a major event in Texas history that wasn't covered---sometimes superficially, but still covered. There were many events that were covered that I was unaware of. Most chapters started with some obscure trivia/story---many of which I had heard of, but many were unique enough that they were new This is a hard book for me to review. It is one of the best overviews of Texas History that I've read, but I've read so much Texas history that it was hard (for me) to stay interested at times. I can't think of a major event in Texas history that wasn't covered---sometimes superficially, but still covered. There were many events that were covered that I was unaware of. Most chapters started with some obscure trivia/story---many of which I had heard of, but many were unique enough that they were new. If you are relatively new to Texas History and want a good overview of the subject, then I highly recommend this book. If you are pretty familiar with Texas History, you might want to pass on it. I feel like I'm being generous giving it 5 stars, but I know that it deserves more than 4 stars! It isn't the books fault.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Gini Rainey

    If you’re looking for a light read, this book would probably not be the best choice for you. However, if you are interested in learning about all the ins and outs that have made Texas the great state that it is, Harrigan’s book will definitely give you all of that information and more. With 944 pages, Harrigan tells the history of Texas from its earliest days to pretty much current times in his inimitable fashion. Weaving facts together in an easy to read and understand fashion, this book is mor If you’re looking for a light read, this book would probably not be the best choice for you. However, if you are interested in learning about all the ins and outs that have made Texas the great state that it is, Harrigan’s book will definitely give you all of that information and more. With 944 pages, Harrigan tells the history of Texas from its earliest days to pretty much current times in his inimitable fashion. Weaving facts together in an easy to read and understand fashion, this book is more like a novel, but pretty much based on the hard, cold facts of how has become a fine blend of all kinds of people doing all sorts of things. With lots of photos and diagrams, this book is a virtual compendium of all that’s out there about Texas between two covers. Richly referenced and indexed, Big Wonderful Thing will be an historically resource book for many years to come. Harrigan, a long-time writer for Texas Monthly has scored a direct hit with this book that was published by the University of Texas Press. Researchers, students, history buffs, and folks who love anything Texas need to add this volume to their libraries.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Pete

    just a big honking cornucopia of weird texasicana, or whatever the word is specifically texan americana. that includes the not-as-enunciated bad parts of americana too -- corniness, white supremacy, patriarchy etc. not on harrigan's part -- he's pretty honest about his blind spots and about how silent the j in tejanx has been (please pardon my overwriting). i wasn't entirely into his low key bush 41/43 apologism but he's not writing about them as presidents, but as texans i guess. one of those b just a big honking cornucopia of weird texasicana, or whatever the word is specifically texan americana. that includes the not-as-enunciated bad parts of americana too -- corniness, white supremacy, patriarchy etc. not on harrigan's part -- he's pretty honest about his blind spots and about how silent the j in tejanx has been (please pardon my overwriting). i wasn't entirely into his low key bush 41/43 apologism but he's not writing about them as presidents, but as texans i guess. one of those books that instigates a few dozen wikipedia rabbit-hole-outings. might have been nice to have a bit more about music and art in general, but as harrigan acknowledges, there is no way to cover everything. hits that groove of writing where the author clearly LOVES the subject matter, but in the full and complicated manner of true love - seeing the ugly and the beautiful and the mutability all at once. RIYL The Fatal Shore but want marginally less genocide and more cattle

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    Have you ever wondered who Burnet, Smith, Travis, Hays, Houston, Austin, and many others were? As a native Texan forced to endure many hours of Texas history growing up, this book brings our history alive. Many of these men were scoundrels. Travis may have died a hero at the Alamo but you wouldn’t want to invest money with him. And it explains why when you see the Alamo today, you think “this is the Alamo?”. This is the best history book I’ve ever read. And I have learned so much about Texas I n Have you ever wondered who Burnet, Smith, Travis, Hays, Houston, Austin, and many others were? As a native Texan forced to endure many hours of Texas history growing up, this book brings our history alive. Many of these men were scoundrels. Travis may have died a hero at the Alamo but you wouldn’t want to invest money with him. And it explains why when you see the Alamo today, you think “this is the Alamo?”. This is the best history book I’ve ever read. And I have learned so much about Texas I never knew.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kyle Magin

    For 800ish pages this was readable as hell, so don't let the length scare you. Harrington covers every base in his book and unearths some really interesting revelations about the Lone Star State. You find out why so many Germans ended up here in Central Texas, how OPEC started in a UT classroom, and how all of Roe v. Wade's litigants hailed from here. This is a good canvas of Texas history. He probably could have done a bit more on minority communities.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Laura Myers

    Not worth the effort.

  15. 4 out of 5

    J.K. George

    This is an epic book and a commitment to read through both the soaring parts and passages, along with dips and drabs and cobwebs of minor details. The overall quality and story makes the effort worth it, and I found the early portions about the early Spanish (and French) colonial periods, along with the native American Indian history especially fascinating. The inexorable influx of Anglos seeking, as Harrigan says in the final pages, "fleeing oppression or chasing dreams," included men and women This is an epic book and a commitment to read through both the soaring parts and passages, along with dips and drabs and cobwebs of minor details. The overall quality and story makes the effort worth it, and I found the early portions about the early Spanish (and French) colonial periods, along with the native American Indian history especially fascinating. The inexorable influx of Anglos seeking, as Harrigan says in the final pages, "fleeing oppression or chasing dreams," included men and women simply unwilling to live under Mexican rule. The wave could not be stopped, especially from the new and muscular country of the United States, as it were. The author describes the Treaty of Hidalgo where the United States, with a gun to the head of Mexico, paid $15 million dollars for Texas as well as all or part of California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico," as an abiding wound to its (Mexico's) national soul." Sections of the book that describe the almost indescribably huge land areas of old land-grant and other ranches are fascinating - the stuff of movies. Oh wait, they have been the stuff of many movie plots. The maps and incredible collection of priceless photos alone make reading the print or eBook format essential. But large parts of the central portion of this work seem bogged down in minutia. A portion describes the "Neutral Zone" between the US and Mexico, then transitions into The Republic of Texas. The move into the US as a slave state, with a dreadful commitment to racism and Anglo superiority over both Spanish/Mexican and black persons, is a damning but accurate part of the makeup of Texas. In fact, overall much of Harrigan's description of Texas is not flattering at all. Yet the courage of the German and Czech areas, where the people refused to go along the supporting slavery at the time of Texas's secession in the Civil War is a refreshing break from the bulk of the population at the time. For me, the first part of this tome, as well as the latter portions with WW II and more modern characters, were the most interesting. The sections on LBJ, indeed larger than life, measure up to the man, with the JFK assassination particularly riveting. One section, near the end, captures the essence of this place: "People viewing Texas from the outside have always recognized that there is something different about it, not just in its expanse but in its attitude .... That sums it up for better or worse.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Max Knight

    Many of you will be familiar with author John Steinbeck’s statement, "Texas is a state of mind, something felt rather than articulated," which certainly applies to my feelings about the place I’ve called home for fifty-four years… 1966-2020. Moreover, should you count my years as an adolescent living in San Antonio from 1952-1960 (I was three when my Dad got assigned to Headquarters, 4th U.S. Army, and I attended school at Fort Sam Houston, Texas from kindergarten through the fifth grade) it add Many of you will be familiar with author John Steinbeck’s statement, "Texas is a state of mind, something felt rather than articulated," which certainly applies to my feelings about the place I’ve called home for fifty-four years… 1966-2020. Moreover, should you count my years as an adolescent living in San Antonio from 1952-1960 (I was three when my Dad got assigned to Headquarters, 4th U.S. Army, and I attended school at Fort Sam Houston, Texas from kindergarten through the fifth grade) it adds up to sixty-two years that I’ve claimed the Lone Star State as my own. Because of my inability to adequately explain what it is about Texas that I love, I find myself periodically reading books by authors far more gifted than I at expressing their observations and thoughts on the mystique that separates Texas from all other states. For example, it was almost on this exact same date two years ago that I wrote a review of the book God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright (see my previous blog post dated Jul 5, 2018) which was actually being researched and written at the same time that Stephen Harrigan was compiling his history of Texas, Big Wonderful Thing. The two men happen to be friends and visited some of the same historical sites together. However, Harrigan’s book is encyclopedic compared to Wright’s; at 925 pages (829 if you exclude the Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography, and Index) it is massive in scope, yet surprisingly readable. History is often nothing more than dates, historical figures and events; dry and boring. Harrigan blends these same elements of history with great storytelling, so the only real issue I had with the book was the difficulty I had holding it up to read! Meticulously researched, Big Wonderful Thing is informative, educational, and entertaining. It spans the years 1528 to the present, but rather than a strict chronological record it uses anecdotal information and individual stories of people and events – not just those that are well known, but obscure men and women and their involvement in moments that shaped the progression and evolution of Texas. The portrayal goes well beyond the myths about Texas that as a child I learned in school. The reality is far more complex, and Harrigan deftly blends factual material with his abilities as a novelist to engage readers in the small details and stories that give context to the larger picture. Some author bias is inevitable in the telling of these stories, but on the whole it is a notable literary achievement. The title of the book comes from a quote by the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe: "I couldn’t believe Texas was real… the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are." Certainly Texas, with all of its faults, complexities, and contradictions has achieved singular elevated status (for better or worse) among the fifty states that comprise our Union, and Stephen Harrigan has given us a worthy rendering of its history that compares favorably and even exceeds that previously attempted by other historians and authors. It is the type of history book that you can literally open to any chapter and find enjoyment in learning something new about Texas or adding to the knowledge that you already had. I highly recommend Big Wonderful Thing.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Tollemache

    Don't let the 900 pages fool you. This tome is a titanic achievement and the most amazing & entralling book on Texas history ever. I consider myself extremely well versed on this stuff, but I learned new things every couple pages. There are small brush stroke details that I had no frigging clue about on almost every event in Texas history from the full account of Cabeza de Vaca's shipwrecking on Galveston and his odyssey across the American Southwest that had eventually walk all the way to the P Don't let the 900 pages fool you. This tome is a titanic achievement and the most amazing & entralling book on Texas history ever. I consider myself extremely well versed on this stuff, but I learned new things every couple pages. There are small brush stroke details that I had no frigging clue about on almost every event in Texas history from the full account of Cabeza de Vaca's shipwrecking on Galveston and his odyssey across the American Southwest that had eventually walk all the way to the Pacific coast of Mexico to numerous times in the early 1840s that Mexico recaptured San Antonio to the Pig War instigated the 1st French ambassodor to TX (at the French Legation building just off I-35) to Abraham Lincoln's offer on the eve of the Civil War to make Sam Houston a general in the Union Army if he could keep Texas from seceding. Early reviews stressed how revisionist Harrigan's book was and how it slays sacred cows of the standard Anglo triumphalist version of Texas history. Harrigan spares no punches in detailing how violent and oppressive the life of this land has been, but unless you get your views on TX history from 1950s Fess Parker Davy Crockett Disney movies there are no shocking revelations. As I said its the cascade of small details that gives this tale of the big events of Texas history so much punch. To be fair, the last 120 pages do drag a bit as he moves into covering more recent events from the 1960s on, but the closing chapter as he drives out of his driveway in Austin and goes on a epic Texas road trip with nothing but Texas music to accompany him he visits so many of the places discussed in the book to see how they are today. Some places are little changed from how they were 500 or a thousand years ago. In other places the course of history has covered up or grown around and obscured scenes where so much happened. The old San Saba mission ruins now sit next to a golf course as does the fort the US built to instigate the Mexican-American War which is under the fairway of a course along the Rio. The San Jacinto battlefield where Texas won independence from Mexico is now a small preserved field of brush and grass in the shadow of the refinery complexes of Beaumont. The most poignant part for me was mid way through when in early days of the Civil War Sam Houston had been run out of office for his spot on prediction that seccession and Civil War would be a disaster for Texas, was now, in the twilight of his life feeling like the land he had given 30 plus years of his life had turned against him. One night in retirement in Huntsville he was confronted by a civil guard demanding to know what right he had to walk around without prior approval or papers. Houston thundered "Go to the fields of San Jacinto and you will learn what gives that right!" A few months before he died he actually returned the battlefield along the San Jac and stood under the tree where a quarter centurly earlier he had taken Santana's surrender while Houston grimaced under the huge oak tree, his ankle shattered by a Spanish musket ball. His since freed slave, Jeff, would recount decades later that as Houston stood under that tree that symbolized all that Houston had done for Texas, he wept.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lee Murray

    This is one of the most amazing books of Texas history I’ve read—and I’ve read a few. It is not small; in fact the book weighs almost 4 pounds! Extensively researched for over six years, Stephan Harrigan has written a highly readable history. It is not a strict technical history, but instead it is a history that not only surveys history beginning with the prehistoric Indian tribes of Texas and the first Spanish explorers, but also includes the contemporary events in music, art, other historical f This is one of the most amazing books of Texas history I’ve read—and I’ve read a few. It is not small; in fact the book weighs almost 4 pounds! Extensively researched for over six years, Stephan Harrigan has written a highly readable history. It is not a strict technical history, but instead it is a history that not only surveys history beginning with the prehistoric Indian tribes of Texas and the first Spanish explorers, but also includes the contemporary events in music, art, other historical figures who lived during the same time but may not have necessarily interacted with each other, but the events of their lives impacted each other. An audacious book that covers everything from the Alamo to the Sharpstown scandal, it is hopelessly infected with Stephen Harrigan’s irrepressible humor, sarcastic wit, and ability to cut through the mirage and illustrate the human weaknesses behind the characters of the book. Unapologetically Texan, his book will appeal to anyone who wants to know more about Texas without wading through tons of tedious historical detail. The notes, bibliography, and references necessary to write such a work are attached if you wish to delve into the minutiae. Believe me, it’s worth the time.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Matt Hooper

    The definitive history book of Texas, warts and all. From its ancient foundation, to its taming at the hands of native peoples; from the invasion of colonialists, to its bloody separation from Mexico. From republic to state, from "The Eyes of Texas"to "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." From Leadbelly, to Roy Orbison, to Beyonce. From the gusher at Spindletop, to three shots fired from the sixth floor building at Elm and Houston. Its endless sky. Its endless stretches of highway. Its immense cast of The definitive history book of Texas, warts and all. From its ancient foundation, to its taming at the hands of native peoples; from the invasion of colonialists, to its bloody separation from Mexico. From republic to state, from "The Eyes of Texas"to "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." From Leadbelly, to Roy Orbison, to Beyonce. From the gusher at Spindletop, to three shots fired from the sixth floor building at Elm and Houston. Its endless sky. Its endless stretches of highway. Its immense cast of artists, visionaries, wackadoos, politicos, wackadoo politicos, innovators, inventors, strong men, and stronger women. The J.R.s and H.L.s and H. Rosses and L.B.J.s. All of them, all of this, fenced within the boundaries of the Great State of Texas – all contained within this mighty volume. An absolute masterpiece of research and writing, "Big Wonderful Thing" is a very rare thing: a 5-pound page-turner.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Paul G. Caron

    Books 2020 #10: Big Wonderful Thing by Stephen Harrigan. This is huge history of a huge state, Texas, the 28th. Of the ones I've read so far, this is the best history of any state. It's not written by an historian but by a novelist who uses the lives of people to give context to the history. The illustrations and photos are very helpful as well. It's a very interesting read and Harrigan does not shy from telling us about the racist origins of the Republic of Texas and then its admission to the U. Books 2020 #10: Big Wonderful Thing by Stephen Harrigan. This is huge history of a huge state, Texas, the 28th. Of the ones I've read so far, this is the best history of any state. It's not written by an historian but by a novelist who uses the lives of people to give context to the history. The illustrations and photos are very helpful as well. It's a very interesting read and Harrigan does not shy from telling us about the racist origins of the Republic of Texas and then its admission to the U.S. There are some stories that I never heard of and even if you never want to read this book you should check out these two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKt01... and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nBlN... It's the price you pay for living in a petroleum-based state. Highly recommended for history buffs (or nerds like me). Five out of five stars.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Angela

    When I first became a Texas History Teacher, I looked for a book to provide me with a general context for the subject I was about to teach. At the time, there really wasn't one. Or at least one that wasn't grossly nationalist or bleakly academic. This book is pretty much exactly what I'd hoped for then. It is apparent that this book was written by an older white guy, but he's clearly worked to be inclusive and there are points that he acknowledges his likely points of bias (in particular in his f When I first became a Texas History Teacher, I looked for a book to provide me with a general context for the subject I was about to teach. At the time, there really wasn't one. Or at least one that wasn't grossly nationalist or bleakly academic. This book is pretty much exactly what I'd hoped for then. It is apparent that this book was written by an older white guy, but he's clearly worked to be inclusive and there are points that he acknowledges his likely points of bias (in particular in his focus on the Texas Revolution and the Bushes, who were family friends). This book is also SUPER readable, given that it's a 900ish page history of Texas. It's impressive and it's a great starting point for building an understanding of Texas history.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mark E. Bentley

    This book may at first be daunting because of its HUGE size, but it is delightfully readable and entertaining while being absolutely packed with facts and trivia about the Lone Star State. To me, a life-long Texan, every chapter resonated with my life and experience or with that of my ancestors. Actually, my ancestors didn't arrive in Texas until the early 1850s, so the history prior to that is vicarious history but that doesn't prevent it from nevertheless being mine, since children in Texas ar This book may at first be daunting because of its HUGE size, but it is delightfully readable and entertaining while being absolutely packed with facts and trivia about the Lone Star State. To me, a life-long Texan, every chapter resonated with my life and experience or with that of my ancestors. Actually, my ancestors didn't arrive in Texas until the early 1850s, so the history prior to that is vicarious history but that doesn't prevent it from nevertheless being mine, since children in Texas are drilled with tales of Stephen Austin and "Remember the Alamo." Still, I was alternately amused, embarrassed, appalled, and proud as I read it, and that I realized is a lot like the experience of living in Texas. A great book by a fine author.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Michael Kelley

    When I finished this book I felt like I was leaving a friend. I wrote my dissertation on early Texas but I missed so much. This is masterly a masterly written history of Texas with antidotes and stories that could only be told by the author. After living in Texas for the past thirteen years I thought I knew about Texas. I don't. It is a huge book which I received as a Christmas present. I literally had to have hernia surgery midway through the book. Texas has a complex history but the author mak When I finished this book I felt like I was leaving a friend. I wrote my dissertation on early Texas but I missed so much. This is masterly a masterly written history of Texas with antidotes and stories that could only be told by the author. After living in Texas for the past thirteen years I thought I knew about Texas. I don't. It is a huge book which I received as a Christmas present. I literally had to have hernia surgery midway through the book. Texas has a complex history but the author makes if feel simple. At the end of the book he mentions an old oak near San Antonio. I am going to find it next week.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tom Fornoff

    This delightful book is both a history of Texas and a compendium of beautiful short stories of our state's history, culture, people and places. At first I was overwhelmed by the physical size of this nearly 1000-page book and had to adjust to when and where to comfortably read it. But I do recommend the physical edition because of the vast array of photos and maps that bring the stories to life. Looking back on my reading history I can see it took me three months to make my way from beginning to This delightful book is both a history of Texas and a compendium of beautiful short stories of our state's history, culture, people and places. At first I was overwhelmed by the physical size of this nearly 1000-page book and had to adjust to when and where to comfortably read it. But I do recommend the physical edition because of the vast array of photos and maps that bring the stories to life. Looking back on my reading history I can see it took me three months to make my way from beginning to end. There's so much great material, and it is offered up in bite-sized chunks, so I was always drawn back. Highly recommended for readers in or from this curious state.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Dennis M.

    A very palatable history of Texas that reads quickly and smoothly despite its length. It is not what I would call an "academic" history of Texas but rather is structured around episodes, people, and general themes. In other words, it's clearly the work of a very good novelist who can show the forest without describing every single tree. Having said that, there are some things I would have liked to have seen (e.g., more about the Texas Rangers, the Great Raid, etc.) but I know where to go to find A very palatable history of Texas that reads quickly and smoothly despite its length. It is not what I would call an "academic" history of Texas but rather is structured around episodes, people, and general themes. In other words, it's clearly the work of a very good novelist who can show the forest without describing every single tree. Having said that, there are some things I would have liked to have seen (e.g., more about the Texas Rangers, the Great Raid, etc.) but I know where to go to find them.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Pat Rolston

    I read TR Fehrenbach’s masterpiece, “Lone Star: Texas and the Texans,” since moving to Austin and considered myself fully saturated on the subject. Stephen Harrigan shocked me and equaled the feat of Fehrenbach in documenting an incredibly informative and entertaining version of Texan history that I ended up devouring. So for anyone wanting an amazing reading experience and to better understand the state of Texas and US history this is for you. It says it all that I equate these two books, so fo I read TR Fehrenbach’s masterpiece, “Lone Star: Texas and the Texans,” since moving to Austin and considered myself fully saturated on the subject. Stephen Harrigan shocked me and equaled the feat of Fehrenbach in documenting an incredibly informative and entertaining version of Texan history that I ended up devouring. So for anyone wanting an amazing reading experience and to better understand the state of Texas and US history this is for you. It says it all that I equate these two books, so for fans of Lone Star this will be a must read.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Joe Stinnett

    Like Texas, this is a big book. About 840 pp of text and more than 900 with notes, etc. Somewhat intimidating, especially since I was expecting a much more academic treatment. Turned out to be a gripping read in the “casually vivid” style the author attributes to other experienced journalists. A wonderful book with many outstanding photographs and some whimsical maps. Could have used an actual, detailed map for folks unsure of where all these places are though.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Gene Ames,

    Steve Harrigan’s ‘Big, Wonderful Thing’ is a big, wonderful read that I couldn’t put down, a page turner of one wonderful tale of Texas history after the other. Harrigan writes true non-fictional history that reads more like the best fiction. I’d like to know his secret way of sourcing all his true, but tall, tales, that happened along the course of the history of Texas. l cant wait to read the whole, big, wonderful thing again.

  29. 5 out of 5

    pianogal

    This was a good, if long, read. There was so much to talk about that it kept me interesting throughout all 800+ pages. Could have had a few more tornado talks, but other than that it was good. Felt bad for how many people died just because they were in the wrong place. So glad I didn't have to grow up there. They are right - don't mess with Texas.

  30. 4 out of 5

    tea_for_two

    I haven’t finished Big Wonderful Thing yet, but I’m currently sitting in a keynote speech Harrington is giving, and damn if that man doesn’t love Texas history (and Texas) and damn if he doesn’t know how to tell a story. The first few chapters have been great. I’m looking forwards to the next many.

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