The Gates of the Alamo
by Stephen Harrigan
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
592 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Promoting a work as "the first full-scale novel about the siege and fall of the Alamo" can't be expected to garner much attention outside of Texas, where that Spanish mission-cum-fortress was overrun by the Mexican army in 1836. Even those of us who remember studying the Alamo debacle once upon a time have likely forgotten the story's complexities: how Mexico's fear of American squatters flooding into Texas provoked the confrontation; how Sam Houston, commander of the territory's separatist forces, had actually ordered that the isolated Alamo be blown up, not defended; and how a combination of bravado and revenge led, at last, to history-making bloodshed. Worse, what little we recall of the true episode may be polluted by memories of the overwrought heroics in John Wayne's 1960 film, The Alamo.
Wisely, Stephen Harrigan, a longtime contributor to Texas Monthly magazine and now a third-time novelist, doesn't rely on readers' familiarity with Texas' independence movement to propel them through The Gates of the Alamo's almost 600 pages. Replete with vivid personalities, both fictional and (in greater profusion) factual, this is a surprisingly affecting yarn. It manages to wring tension from the 13-day Alamo assault, even when we all know that the outpost's posturing protectors are toast. And although Harrigan offers a frequently critical portrayal of the events and eccentrics involved in the conflict just outside of San Antonio de Béxar (today's San Antonio), The Gates of the Alamo does not come off as revisionist.
At the center of Harrigan's sprawling narrative lies Edmund McGowan, a "confident, solitary" American botanist in his mid 40s, who has made a satisfying career of studying the vegetation in the Mexican "subprovince of Texas." However, when in the spring of 1835 his government payments run dry, he sets off for Mexico City to re-establish his commission. On the way, McGowan stops at the Texas coastal settlement of Refugio, and there encounters a recently widowed innkeeper, Mary Mott, and her 16-year-old son, Terrell.
The Motts seem to live a peaceful life, save for occasional threats from hostile Karankawa Indians and misdirected alligators. But like tens of thousands of other American colonists in Texas (especially those who bristle at the Mexican prohibition against slavery), they've been swept up in talk of revolution against, and separation from, President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna's government. Harrigan sums up this often-misguided debate nicely in an early snatch of dialogue between McGowan and Jim Bowie, an alcoholic former slave trader (and future Alamo casualty) who is also passing through Refugio. When it's suggested that "Texians" should be grateful to Mexico for giving them land, Bowie rants:
"They gave you land, and now they want to tax you off it. They want to make it worthless by denying you your right to own slaves. They want to make you a slave instead, sir. How can a free man tolerate what Santa Anna has done? Shutting down state governments, overthrowing the [Mexican] Constitution of 1824. It is tyranny pure and simple, and contrary to every American principle."
Any hope Mary Mott had that her family could avoid the brewing rebellion goes to pieces after Terrell is seduced by a simple-headed young woman, whose subsequent pregnancy and gruesome suicide drive a wall between mother and son. Shamed and angry, and determined to establish his value as a man, Terrell leaves home to join the ragtag Texian army. Most of the rest of the book finds McGowan and Mary in troubled pursuit, with all three of them winding up inside the ill-fortified, undermanned Alamo as Santa Anna and his better-equipped troops descend on Béxar.
Harrigan's storytelling can be long-winded at times, overly earnest at others, but it includes some wonderful dramatic flourishes. For instance, during Santa Anna's first bombardment of the Alamo, bats suddenly swell out of every crack and joint of the old mission, while the scalp of a would-be soldier standing beside Terrell "loosed in panic and the man's hair had fallen out and covered the shoulders of his linsey-woolsey suit." The author also draws on his familiarity with the Texas countryside to lyrical effect, as when he tells of McGowan and Mary riding to meet Terrell in Béxar:
They rode through a stretch of hog-wallow prairie, where scattered declivities in the grass took on a peculiar allure as the shadows lengthened, reminding Edmund of a fanciful illustration he had once seen of a cratered valley on the moon's surface. Beyond the hog wallows the prairie resumed in featureless splendor, the grasses so high that the spent seedheads brushed against the bellies of their horses. As the light continued to fade the canopies of the isolated oak mottes grew so dark against the pale grass that they looked inverted, as if they were not stands of tall trees but deep pits that led from the tawny prairie to the blackest depths of the earth.
Harrigan's research shows in his historical details and the sensuality of his battle sequences. He's even made use of recent findings that contradict some long-held beliefs about the Alamo standoff. Absorbed in this tale, it's possible to imagine being among the compound's defenders, waiting for reinforcements that never come, your agitation growing nightly as cannonades are replaced by loud barrages of Mexican music, "pointedly aggressive and malevolent."
Yet The Gates of the Alamo's principal assets are its characters: Terrell, who is both hardened and humbled in the crucible of violence; the monkish McGowan and the strong-willed Mary Mott, whose developing relationship is rife with cliffhangers of passion; and a small secondary cast of Mexicans, such as mapmaker Telesforo Villasenor, who provide readers with some engaging perspective from the attackers' side -- perspective that is commonly absent from cinematic re-creations of the Alamo rout.
Along with these imagined players come some well-fleshed-out real-life figures. Like Bowie, sick and raving in bed at the height of the siege, one hand clutching his oversized signature knife -- just in case he can take down a Mexican invader with his last breath. Here also we see the arrogant, preening Santa Anna, sporting about in an almost-reflective white uniform as blood spills in his shadow. Perhaps the most colorful export from the history books, though, is David Crockett, the frontiersman and ex-congressman (who'd moved out west after telling his constituents that if they didn't re-elect him, they could go to hell and he would go to Texas). With a practiced politician's ease, Crockett maintains order within the Alamo's leadership ranks and wanders every evening among its wounded combatants, as if they were his constituents, "shaking hands, telling jokes, handing out his last stray twists of tobacco," doing whatever he can to keep spirits up. When Crockett's death comes, as we know it must, it's both a less heroic and more moving scene than expected.
In his pursuit of comprehensiveness, author Harrigan stretches the credibility of his story. Who could seriously believe, to take one example, that McGowan would just "happen" to meet almost everyone who was instrumental in the coming Alamo drama, from Santa Anna to pacifist leader Stephen Austin to William Travis, the mission/fort's painfully green commander. But amidst these encounters and the martyr-making massacre that follows, The Gates of the Alamo succeeds in giving a welcome human scale to a tragedy that, over the last 164 years, has become part of the mythos of America's manifest destiny. | March 2000
J. Kingston Pierce is the senior editor of January Magazine.