2017-04-20 / Opinions

Book Review

El Paso
By WINSTON GROOM
Reviewed by
PEGGY BARNETT

Historical novels can be so fascinating that they send us to do research, or they can be so prone to error that we do research to find out what really happened. We can pretty much trust Winston Groom, who has written about history and done the research for us. However, as in his popular novel Forrest Gump, Groom mixes in historical figures with his fictional ones. “Colorful American characters, from the journalist-socialist John Reed to the misanthropic satirist Ambrose Bierce, soon found themselves tangled up in the thing, for better or worse, and although this is not a ‘historical novel,’ I couldn’t resist throwing them into the story.”

“The thing” is Mexico in the early twentieth century when Pancho Villa was struggling against the Mexican government and the wealthy Americans who were intruding into Mexican territory from their extensive ranches in Texas. Pancho Villa was a real person, of course, known for his brutality, but occasional gallantry. The other main characters are fictional.

Arthur Shaughnessy was the adopted son of Colonel Shaughnessy, a larger-than-life railroad magnate who had gained great wealth and unfortunately pitted himself against Villa when his cattle were rustled. Off he went with his whole family and entourage to save his remaining fortune. Meanwhile Villa had brutally murdered the ranch manager and taken away the wife of Johnny Ollas, a favorite employee.

This is not a short book; a lot happens. The territory is lawless, and in addition to the revolutionary army, bandits threaten the success of the Colonel’s attempt to restore at least his own property and people. Although President Wilson initially refuses to go into Mexican land, there is an army contingent led by Lt. George S. Patton, and the oneday to-be movie star Tom Mix is in Villa’s camp.

The grandchildren are kidnapped, their mother and grandmother are injured, and Bomba, the black servant, plays a pivotal role. Groom follows the various groups trying to rescue the children (Bomba, Johnny Ollas, Arthur, the Colonel) while showing what Villa, his men, Mix, and the children are experiencing. To add to the confusion, the Gourd Woman appears. She may or may not be able to predict the future.

As the chase goes on, the characters encounter a grizzly bear, the monarch butterfly migration (Arthur is a butterfly expert), and a bloody bullfight (the Colonel had several fighting bulls, and Johnny is a matador). El Paso is not for the faint-hearted; much blood is spilled, and not everyone survives. In any case, the reader will be entertained and might even learn something about Mexican and U.S. history. El Paso is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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