Preview a tantalizing chapter from a major history of Texas

‘They Came From the Sky’ makes the reader want more from author Stephen Harrigan


Highlights

“They Came From the Sky” is a handsomely produced chapter from Stephen Harrigan’s narrative history of Texas.

Stephen Harrigan’s job is to write the sort of keystone volume, which is a soup-to-nuts history of Texas.

In 2013, the University of Texas Press announced an ambitious $1 million, 16-book project and accompanying website called the Texas Bookshelf. To be written by UT faculty, it is meant to explain the state’s culture and history in a comprehensive manner. Four years later, the project has produced its first pearl, “They Came From the Sky: The Spanish Arrive in Texas,” a handsomely produced chapter from author Stephen Harrigan’s narrative history of Texas that’s already underway.

American-Statesman: What’s the status of your contribution to the Bookshelf?

Stephen Harrigan: My job is to write the sort of keystone volume, which is a soup-to-nuts history of Texas. I’ve written about 600 pages so far. It’s a dizzying project. The state of Texas, as you may have heard, is pretty big, and there’s a big history to go with every square inch of it.

The major challenge for me is to try not to be intimidated by how much story there is to tell, by the bewildering complexity of people and events that have created this place. It’s a lot of fun, but I spend half of every night lying awake thinking things like: “Wait, did I forget to mention all the villages along the lower Rio Grande that José de Escandón founded in the 1750s?” or “Is it OK if I just skip over a few of these kinda boring governors?”

In dealing with the Native Americans and earliest Spanish excursions into what is now Texas, do they follow the patterns of such encounters in the rest of the New World?

Pretty much. It was a cataclysmic era turbocharged by a particularly Spanish combination of rapacity and religious idealism. But the Spanish were encountering an equally complex world of long-standing wars and alliances and trading networks among the indigenous people of the Americas. The greatest weapons the Spanish had — besides steel and horses — were the diseases they brought with them for which the Native Americans had no immunity.

RELATED: Thousands flocked to see Liberty Bell in Austin during World War I

I’d never heard the story of Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, or if I did, I’d forgotten it. Tell us a little about her significance.

She’s a fascinating character, very mysterious and mystical. She was a young cloistered nun living in Spain in the 1620s. She never left the convent, at least not physically, but she claimed that she frequently “bi-located” across the Atlantic to Texas to teach the gospel to the Indians there.

At this time, Texas was still pretty much an unknown immensity to the Spanish. Their early settlements were far to the west, along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. But out of that immensity one day appeared a delegation of Jumano Indians, who reported to the friars near present-day Albuquerque that they kept seeing this apparition of a “Woman in Blue” who urged them to ask for priests to follow them into their lands to teach them the Catholic faith.

Toward the end of her life, still having never left the convent, Sor María was interrogated by an Inquisition priest, who found her to be very credible, or at least not working for Satan.

How do the storytelling skills that you employ in historical fiction such as your recent “A Friend of Mr. Lincoln” help bring alive Texas history, which many Texans think — and I emphasize “think” — they already know.

Being a novelist has taught me the importance of writing in scenes, of not just telling about something that happened but trying as much as possible to throw the reader into the action. I try to anticipate where the reader might start to get bored — say, with an accounting of cotton production in Texas in the 1890s — and to shift focus to some interesting human detail — for instance, the dietary preferences of James Hogg, our proudly corpulent reformist governor.

Obviously, I can’t make up dialogue the way I can in a novel, but there are plenty of colorful quotes from letters and diaries that I’ve found are immensely helpful in moving the story along and keeping things lively. And one of the things that keeps my own excitement fresh is actually visiting the places I’m writing about. There are plenty of days when I’ve driven 400 miles just to visit some obscure grave or gawk at some almost inconspicuous dirt mound that used to be a Caddo temple.

It’s not all that common that a chapter from an upcoming major history is published on its own, except perhaps in a magazine.

I think UT Press sees it as a kind of movie trailer for the finished book that they are patiently awaiting. Oh so patiently. I promise, guys, I’m writing as fast as I can!



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Austin360

Make your own avocado toast with tips from top Twin Cities chefs

Like all obsessions, this one started quietly, and then quickly snowballed. Earlier this year, I was reading “On Vegetables” (Phaidon, $49.95), the fascinating garden-to-kitchen tour guide written by Los Angeles chef Jeremy Fox, and the recipe on page 55 struck a chord. “Avocado toast is ubiquitous on Southern California menus, and...
Chemical engineer turned baker offers tips for bread
Chemical engineer turned baker offers tips for bread

The smell of freshly baked treats greets patrons as they step into the newly opened Village Oven at 1407 Union St., in Brunswick.  The brand new bistro, just five weeks in operation, was formerly the site of a car wash, but has found new life as a Euro-inspired cafe. The latest locale to join the ranks of the downtown business is the brain child...
From Maritime Bairrada in Portugal, wines of natural freshness
From Maritime Bairrada in Portugal, wines of natural freshness

For many Americans, the wines of Portugal are a great unknown. Unlike those of France, Italy or Spain, Portuguese wines do not carry with them much of an identity. A mention evokes no particular image except perhaps for port, the famous fortified wine. The problem is, few Americans drink fortified wine anymore. If consumers do, my impression is that...
Chefs offer wounded soldiers a welcome taste of comfort
Chefs offer wounded soldiers a welcome taste of comfort

All Ryan Davis ever wanted to be was a pilot. He was set to become a full-time instructor with Silver State Helicopters in Mesa, Arizona, when the company suddenly went bankrupt, just one more victim of the economic meltdown of 2008. Davis considered his various options - and then joined the U.S. Army later that same year. "I wasn't forced into...
An ‘organic’ menu? well, not entirely
An ‘organic’ menu? well, not entirely

About four years ago, Gil Rosenberg started eating at Bareburger, an international restaurant chain, after undergoing surgery that left him prone to infection and more inclined to eat organic meat. And the sign outside the Bareburger in Astoria, Queens, where he first ate, prominently displayed the word “organic” above the restaurant&rsquo...
More Stories