A blog reader in Texas recommended this novel a while ago, and I’m glad they did because it’s a fine one. Tom Lea (1907-2001) was a Texan, who is remembered as a muralist, illustrator, and painter, and was also a gifted novelist. One of a handful of his books, The Wonderful Country is set c. 1880 in the borderlands of West Texas and Mexico.
Plot. Its central character is a young American, Martin Brady, who has been living since boyhood in Mexico. We learn little about his past, but his work involves him with a powerful family in Chihuahua. They are being supplied with arms by a German merchant in an anglo settlement (an unnamed El Paso) across the Rio Grande.
Brady is stranded on the American side when his horse falls on him and breaks his leg. There, as he recuperates on crutches, he comes to know the town’s few prominent citizens, including the commanding officer of the Army outpost and the head of the local contingent of Texas Rangers, who offers him a job.
Before he can take the job, he kills a man who has beaten up one of his new friends, a Jewish immigrant. And Brady flees to his old life in Mexico, transporting contraband while a civil war is being waged for control of the province. Meanwhile, everyone lives in terror of the Apaches, who are on a rampage.
The plot is complex with many characters. Uncertain of his safety, Brady becomes attached to another Spanish land-grant family, whose patrón is Santiago Santos. He is a wonderfully drawn father-figure of a character for the fatherless Brady. An Apache attack leads them to an encounter with the 10th Cavalry “buffalo soldiers,” whose commanding officer has been mortally wounded in their pursuit of the Apaches.
Brady reluctantly leaves Santos to help the American soldiers find their way back to the U.S. There he is called once more back to Mexico, this time with the Rangers, to prevent a shipment of ammunition from reaching an army of fighting Apaches. The final chapter is reserved for a fatal encounter with yet another adversary.
Themes. The Wonderful Country is high-tension storytelling. Sometimes fortunes take sudden turns, as when an ox-drawn cart transporting gunpowder explodes. Then there are long stretches when the suspense is riveting, as when Brady, rain-soaked, inches on his belly in the darkness to a smoldering farmstead to learn the fate of its occupants.
Brady himself is an absorbing character, lost in many ways and attempting to leave behind a troubled past to forge a new identity. Lea fully understands his youth and both his fears and his courage. The warmth and generosity that his friendship triggers in others pull him deeply into relationships that he is then torn from by circumstances.
The one constant in his life is the black stallion, Lagrimas, a gift to him from the Castros. The fondness and respect he has for this horse is a continuing theme in the novel. It’s rare for a man’s horse to spring to life in a novel as such a fully dimensioned character.
Part of the story’s achievement is its ability to effectively stick with a single character from almost the beginning. From chapter six onward, Brady’s are the only eyes, ears, feelings, and thoughts through which the story is told. The effect is to intensify the isolation of his character, in a world where companions are always temporary and it is impossible to know whom to trust.
Lea is a writer’s writer. The material is similar in some ways to Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. Dialogue is natural, and his descriptions of the physical world are vivid and palpable, with a touch of poetry. Here a group of rangers set out on a day’s ride:
A ghost of daybreak brushed at their backs. Its glow carved the shape of Sierra del Lobo against the sky. The light brightening cast suddenly from the east a red of day like a blood of battle on the stones. The riders moved toward the mountain with their long shadows before them.
His portrayal of an inexperienced young man's glimmerings of fond attraction to a girl are poignantly sweet without being sentimental. He also captures the loopy sensations of inebriation and the desperate confusion of the next morning's hangover. A welcome touch is the many illustrations in the novel, including the endpapers and title page, all evocative of a 1950s sensibility and drawn by Lea himself.
Wrapping up. Tom Lea is something of a legend in Texas. A handsome website has been dedicated to his life and work. A film was adapted from The Wonderful Country in 1959 by the same name and starring Robert Mitchum. Another novel, The Brave Bulls, was made into a Mel Ferrer film in 1951.
Further reading: Tom Lea Institute
Image credits: tomlea.net
Coming up: John Wayne, The Horse Soldiers (1959)