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Texas History: Pick up these prime books about our Lone Star State

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Oveta Culp Hobby was one of the most powerful women in Texas, especially in tandem with her husband, Gov. William P. Hobby. FDR named her head of the Women's Army Corps and Eisenhower made her the first secretary of the Department of Health Education and Welfare. She and her husband combined politics and journalism seamlessly. Here she is photographed with a group of powerful men in 1953 by Edward Bourdon.

The "Think, Texas" mail satchel bulges with new and newish Texas books.

I just finished Lawrence Wright's "The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID." The Austin author, journalist and playwright's synopsis of the coronavirus crisis is not solely about Texas, but Wright includes sharply etched scenes from our state's particular and seemingly unavoidable struggles. 

Previously, Wright used his prodigious reporting skills to construct the insightful 2020 novel, "The End of October," which closely predicted the collision of science, politics and personal drama that we subsequently witnessed during the worst pandemic in a century (and one that hasn't ended).

Wright's access to scientists, planners and medical personnel is a priceless asset. Yet just as welcome — and valuable — is his ability to synthesize the news in "The Plague Year." He also reflects thoughtfully on the changes in his life during the past months.

Texas History: She grew up at the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo

In 2020, author Lawrence Wright, a staff writer with The New Yorker, released "The End Of October" — a novel about a pandemic that closely predicted the coronavirus crisis. In 2021, he has delivered "The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID," a nonfiction account of the actual pandemic and its consequences.

He accomplished something similar in his extended 2018 essay, "God Save Texas: A Journey to the Soul of the Lone Star State," as he patiently explained recent developments in the state's culture, while looking with clear eyes into our future. I consider "God Save Texas" an essential bookshelf mate to his friend Stephen Harrigan's magnificent 2019 gift to our state, "Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas."

Let's face it, if you see the names "Lawrence Wright" or "Stephen Harrigan" on a book jacket, buy it or borrow it without delay.

"The Governor and the Colonel" was written by Don Carleton, director of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas.

The very next Texas history to read

My next read is more intimidating in scale: "The Governor and the Colonel: A Duo Biography of William P. Hobby and Oveta Culp Hobby" by Don Carleton.

Weighing in at almost 900 pages, it promises to be a thorough account of a family that influenced Texas politics and culture for more than a century. Carleton serves as the director of the Briscoe Center for American History and was a member of the recent University of Texas committee that examined the complicated past of "The Eyes of Texas."

Gov. William P. Hobby (1878-1964) rose to power through the publishing business and moved up from the role of lieutenant governor in 1917 when Gov. James Ferguson was impeached on corruption charges. His wife, Oveta Culp Hobby (1905-1995), shared a background in journalism, politics and law. During World War II, she led the Women's Army Corps (WAC), and, in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her the first Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Quite the power couple. Other than the even more potent team of LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson, I can't think of many rivals in Texas history. Their only son, William P. Hobby Jr., served a powerful lieutenant governor from 1973 to 1991.

I've so far read only the first few well-crafted pages. I also flipped through the generous helping of photographs.

One thing that struck me right away: So many of the later photographs make Oveta Culp Hobby look severe, when in fact she was young and stylish, in her 20s, when she and Hobby got married. She was already incredibly accomplished and ended up being more so than her husband, who was in his 50s and mourning the death of his first wife when they started to date.

I look forward to reading the rest of this magnum opus and to interviewing Carleton about his signal historical achievement. 

More:Austin's LBJ Library will reopen next month -- but this time it's all about Lady Bird

More Texas books wait on my 'read soon' table

I've carved out some quiet time for "The Governor and the Colonel" — I grew up reading the Hobby newspaper, the Houston Post — but I'm also looking forward to the following Texas books that are lined up behind it:

"The Writings of Ferdinand Lindheimer: Texas Botanist, Texas Philosopher" translated with commentary by John E. Williams. I've already devoured big chunks of this book by the "Father of Texas Botany," which minutely describes raw Central Texas during the late 19th century. Let's all thank Williams for making it available in English.

"Nepantla Familias" features some big literary names, including Sandra Cisneros, Octavio Solis and Oscar Cásares.

"A Single Star and Bloody Knuckles: A History of Politics and Race in Texas" by Bill Minutaglio. Journalist, educator and author Minutaglio looks at 150 years of Texas politics primarily through the lens of race. This is not the only new book on this timely subject, but in this case, I expect new ground to be broken.

"The Texas Triangle: An Emerging Power in the Global Economy" by Henry Cisneros, David Hendricks, J.H. Cullum Clark and William Fulton. A new study explores the networks that tie together Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin-San Antonio. I've been fascinated by this notional triangle since childhood. Four authors might mean too many cooks in the kitchen, but I'm optimistic.

"A Biscuit for Your Shoe: A Memoir of County Line, a Texas Freedom Colony" by Beatrice Upshaw. Published by the Texas Folklore Society, this memoir complements photographer Richard Orton's key book, "The Upshaws of County Line: An American Family," previously celebrated in this column.

"Releasing the Butterfly: A Love Affair in Four Acts" by Max Sherman. This heartbreaking memoir about a couple who grew up in the Texas Panhandle during the 1950s has already charmed readers. It was written by politician and educational leader Sherman, who lives with his wife at an Austin care home.

"Morris Kight: Humanist, Liberationist, Fantabulist" by Mary Ann Cherry. While Kight pushed his pioneering activism for gay rights primarily in Los Angeles, his youth in Texas made an indelible imprint on his personality.

"The Sports Revolution: How Texas Changed the Culture of American Athletics" by Frank Andre Gurdy. I'm not big on sports books, but this one stays on my "read soon" stack because of its ambitious and entirely plausible thesis. With news of college conference realignment in the air, it should be even more instructive.

"Sabotaged: Dreams of Utopia in Texas" by James Pratt. I've heard about the failed French socialist utopian colony of La Réunion most of my life, but this is the first modern study I've run across about it.

"From Presidio to the Pecos River: Surveying the United States-Mexico Boundary Along the Rio Grande, 1852 and 1853" by Orville B. Shelburne. This monumental scientific achievement in the rugged Big Bend country begged for a book-length treatment. Now here it is.

"Inside the Texas Revolution: The Enigmatic Memoir of Herman Ehrenberg" edited  by James E. Crisp (with others). The Texas State Historical Association has been particularly good at unearthing material about half-forgotten but crucial chapters of our state's past. I'll admit that I know next to nothing about Ehrenberg, a writer, engineer, surveyor and cartographer who survived the Goliad massacre.

More:Texas History: Black citizenship barely survived the Jim Crow era, according to museum

"Reading, Writing and Revolution: Escuelitas and the Emergence of Mexican American Identity in Texas" by Philis M. Barragán Goetz. Spanish-language schools helped change the way that Mexican Americans viewed their world at a time when speaking Spanish could land one in big trouble inside Anglo-dominated classrooms.

"The Texas Railroad: The Scandalous and Violent History of the International and Great Northern Railroad, 1866-1925" by Wayne Cline. I admit that any book about Texas railroads arouses my interest, especially if the tracks for the railroad in question run less than a mile from my house.

"Growing Up in the Lone Star State: Notable Texans Remember Their Childhoods" by Gaylon Finklea Hecker and Marianne Odom. I first heard about this laudable "project of a lifetime" during an Austin Found speaking gig and couldn't wait to put my hands on it. 

"War on the Border" was written by best-selling author Jeff Guinn.

"Nepantla Familias: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature on Families Between Two Words" edited by Sergio Troncoso. Some big literary names — Sandra Cisneros, Octavio Solis, Oscar Cásares, for instance — are represented here, but so are writers new to me. This volume complements Dagoberto Gilb's "Hecho en Tejas."

"Texas Jazz Singer: Louise Tobin in the Golden Age of Swing and Beyond" by Kevin Edward Mooney. At age 102, Tobin is one of the last living stars of the Swing Era. Music historian Mooney is to be applauded for reviving interest in her life story. Now I want to hear her voice, too.

"War on the Border: Villa, Pershing, the Texas Rangers and an American Invasion" by Jeff Guinn. It's great that this period of the early 20th century is attracting big guns such as best-selling author Guinn. So much recent scholarship has shaped our knowledge of the border during the Mexican Revolution that another well-told synthesis is in order.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

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