If you pick up this book you won’t know where you’re headed. Texas, sure. After all the title of Roger D. Hodge’s book is Texas Blood: Seven Generations Among the Outlaws, Ranchers, Indians, Missionaries, Soldiers, and Smugglers of the Borderlands. And there are maps in the first chapter that will whet your appetite for West Texas adventures. But this meandering book only occasionally stops long enough to soak in Texas. You’re as likely to send time in Missouri or Arizona along the way.
Roger Hodge has his literary bona fides as an editor of Oxford American and Harper’s and he certainly can tell a tale. But he’s not a crowd-pleaser. He starts out this book sharing his dissatisfaction with the typical Texas history with its “generalizations and hoary meditations on Texas ‘character.’” Such grandiose pretensions are “self-congratulatory nationalistic rubbish” in Hodge’s view and need a perspective that is more diverse and tragic, recognizing the many crossing trails of Europeans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Anglos who met each other here. And he promises a personal story based on his own multi-generational family history in the state.
He finds some interesting stories, landscapes, and peoples. What he never finds is a through line that can pull it all together.
Much of this is forgivable because the terrain is under-appreciated and richer in history than is usually acknowledged. Out there in the canyons and deserts there are pictographs of the ancient Trans-Pecos peoples, abandoned cinnabar mines in the Big Bend, and artist colonies like the ones I discovered in Marfa and Terlingua last summer. Hodge recreates western migrations along the southern route from San Antonio to San Diego complete with thousands of thirsty cattle, Apache raids, and roadside graves of those who didn’t make it.
His own family appears frequently to remind us of Hodge’s connections to the state, as does Hodge himself who uses the narrative form to explore border issues like drugs, immigration, and walls. You can’t help but feel that, as the line on the map hardens into actual structures that something precious is being lost. Hodge’s memories of casual crossings from his home town of Del Rio into Acuña, Mexico highlight what used to be and is no more.
There’s an unhurried air to life in the borderlands. People move slowly and always keep an eye on the horizon. Hodge does the same as he wanders around this book. He’s a fan of Cormac McCarthy and he has imbibed McCarthy’s sense of the mythical journeys you can take on the border. Unlike, McCarthy, however, Hodge is cool and bloodless. You get the sense he’s more interested than committed to the subject of his book. Given the outsized role of Texas in our national story and politics these days, it seems more should be at stake here.