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Miles and Miles

Big Wonderful Thing Book Cover

Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas
by Stephen Harrigan.

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019.
944 pp. $35 Hardcover.

Reviewed by
Brett Derbes

There has always been a fascination with the land just west of the Gulf of Mexico. From the travels of Cabeza de Vaca to twenty-first century tourists, Texas attracts attention from artists, scholars, and journalists. Stephen Harrigan is a prolific writer for Texas Monthly, a New York Times best-selling author, and an award-winning storyteller with a lifetime of personal experience and exploration across the Lone Star State. With Big Wonderful Thing, he delivers a sweeping narrative of Texas history informed by his wanderings, writings, and weekly breakfast discussions with H. W. Brands, Larry, and Gregory Curtis.

   Harrigan admits to initially turning down this challenge, but recalls, “Gradually I realized that being intimidated by a task was not the same thing as being unready for it.” The narrative of Big Wonderful Thing combines a thematic and chronological approach within fifty-six chapters organized into five parts. The text is enhanced by 188 intriguing illustrations and ten maps by Margaret Kimball. He is certainly not the first author to attempt to compress the lengthy history of Texas. Harrigan points to Henderson Yoakum’s two-volume History of Texas (1855), Randolph B. Campbell’s Gone to Texas (2003), and James L. Hayley’s Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas (2006) as guides on his journey, while intentionally steering away from the influence of T. R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texas and Texans (1968). He points out a dozen essential books that remained on his desk throughout the project, while praising the Handbook of Texas Online as, “a crucial first stop for anyone curious about anything having to do with Texas.”

   Harrigan devotes nearly half of the book to the well-known personalities of the early history, Texas Revolution, Republic of Texas, and Civil War era. He follows the development of politics, industry, entertainment, law, and technology across those decades. The author journeys through ruins from the original inhabitants of Texas who were forced to relocate as a new population of Americans, Germans, Czechs, and dozens of other nationalities flooded into the state. Of course, not everyone who arrived there did so by choice. Harrigan details the path of Estebanico, who became the first African to traverse Texas as a slave on the expedition Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528. His chapters reveal the complex and sometimes violent race relations in Texas from the early interactions of American Indians, Mexicans, Tejanos, and Anglos, to the Confederate defense of Sabine Pass against the Union Army of emancipation.

   The second half of Big Wonderful Thing follows Texas on its path to a modern South as it urbanized and became a national leader in technology. Harrigan highlights the struggle of Freedmen to exercise their rights amid horrendous acts, such as the lynching of Henry Smith and Jesse Washington. He shows the advancement of LULAC and the NAACP during the Civil Rights era through the triumphs of Heman Sweatt, Barbara Jordan, Selena Quintanilla, and countless others from contemporary times. Harrigan’s work documents the stream of curious outsiders gravitating to Texas seeking new beginnings and better opportunities. Harrigan reminisces about a young Vietnamese boy who fled to Houston after the fall of Saigon. He determines that, “he would be a Texan, just like all the immigrants before him to this outsized state that sits at the center of the nation but stands consciously apart from it.” The chapters overflow with the triumphs of Audie Murphy, Bessie Coleman, and Lyndon Baines Johnson, as well as the tragedies of the Texas City disaster, the UT Tower shooting, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.

   The Herculean task of documenting the entire scope of the complex history of Texas requires passion, discernment, and endurance. Harrigan’s expressed frustration at the inability to personally visit every site along every path and absorb those encounters is certainly shared by his fellow researchers, authors, and historians. In the epilogue of Big Wonderful Thing, he laments, “It was too much. Texas was too large, too old. It was impossible to see one thing, to bring into focus one period or person in its history, without having the anxious feeling that you were missing a galaxy of other moments and personalities.” Nonetheless, Harrigan’s work is replete with an innumerable collection of people, both common and well-known, who engaged in an endless number of activities, both ordinary and extraordinary, that collectively made our history.

   Writing two historical novels set in Texas gave Harrigan, “an enhanced respect for the work of every sort of historian, from academic to unaffiliated.” The community of editors, professionals, and historians that he consulted is appropriate and impressive. Being in proximity to those champions of Texas history, whether in person or book form, furthers the reader’s understanding of the evolving historiography of Texas history, as well as the importance of preserving a factual, diverse, and comprehensive historical record. Harrigan provides an organized list of sources and abbreviated notes for each chapter that confirm his exhaustive research. The author even previewed a forthcoming edited collection by Light Townsend Cummins, Bruce Glasrud, and Gary D. Wintz to enhance his extensive bibliography.

  Harrigan overcame an intimidating challenge to create an engaging narrative of Texas history. The chapters of Big Wonderful Thing are filled with a combination of important, interesting and recurring topics that encourage readers to accelerate through the pages. The author’s successful combination of his life experiences with the collective wisdom from authoritative sources produced an excellent book. Harrigan’s work is a great addition to the Texas Bookshelf Series from UT Press and will be an enjoyable read for newcomers, enthusiasts, and scholars.

Brett J. Derbes lives in Austin where he serves as Director of Research for the Texas State Historical Association and Managing Editor of the Handbook of Texas. He is an Auburn University alumni whose research focuses on inmate labor at state penitentiaries in the Antebellum and Civil War South.