Most of you know that I’m a part of a great book club composed of a bunch of people I’ve known for like 12-13 years, and that it’s one of the highlights of my social life. There’s always awesome food (and plenty of it!), and our discussions are wonderful. We’ve been doing book club meetings once every 6 weeks for about a year now, and it’s been so great.
Last night, we met to discuss The Son by Phillip Meyer, which is a work of historical fiction. I don’t really read much historical fiction (unless you count all the Regency romance novels I read while I was supposed to be studying for the Bar way back when), and the “wild wild west” really isn’t my scene, but I’m so glad I read this book. I wouldn’t have even touched it had it not been for book club, but it was so rich and compelling, and even though it was emotionally heavy such that I had to sit with it a while to properly process it, I just tore right through it.
Minus the last 20 pages, which I literally read just as we were all starting to gather around to begin our discussion. Oops!
(I’m careful with spoilers, but this post does kind of spoil certain parts of the book, I guess. Read with caution. I don’t give away any twists or turns, but I do talk about the plot.)
It’s kind of long – about 600 pages – but well worth the read. The story is broken up into three separate but intertwined narratives: that of Colonel Eli McCullough, his son Peter McCullough, and Eli’s great-granddaughter Jeannie McCullough. The book takes place over 150 years, and focuses on this Texas family-run oil dynasty.
(I swear, the inspiration better not have been the Bush family, because fuck them all.)
The book focuses heavily on Comanche culture as well, which was easily the most riveting and compelling part of the whole work. Meyers’s descriptions are so vivid, just absolutely unreal, and so beautifully done. He meticulously researched everything that went into this book, particularly Apache and Comanche and Lipan culture, to mention the names of a few tribes that pop up in this book, and even went so far as to drink buffalo blood.
(There’s a passage where one of the characters, Eli, drinks buffalo blood, and there is a great description of how it tastes, and how warm it is, and then how it coagulates the longer it’s exposed to the open air, etc.)
Our book club host asked a question toward the end of the night that elicited some excellent, provocative responses. She asked, “If you had to distill this book down to one idea, what would it be, how would you articulate it?”
It sounds like a pretty standard “book club question,” really, but we’ve never asked that about any of our books. To be fair, we also haven’t really read much fiction – just The Son and Camus’s The Plague, which I loved.
I loved the discussion that came out of that question.
For me, personally, the message (or distilling, I guess) of the book was plain. Due to the jumping around of the narratives, and the fact that one character was the great-granddaughter of the other so there was a huge time gap, it took me longer than I want to admit to realize that Eli was Jeannie’s great-grandfather, and Peter’s dad. So I’d be reading the book, before I realized this, and thinking, “Man, Peter’s dad is such a fucking dick. Ooh, here’s Eli! I love Eli!”
So, yeah, that was embarrassing. Hah!
But anyway, once I realized that, this entire book just became so shiningly, blindingly beautiful to me. Holy shit. It was the story of the rise and fall of a family. Of trying to form genuine connections with people, and failing miserably for a variety of reasons. Of how the people who lived for something other than themselves were the ones who were killed off, one by one, throughout the course of the book. Of a man’s search for something that would pull him out of his own head.
So for me, the message of The Son was that damaged, flawed people create damaged, flawed people, and that we’re all struggling with the ghosts of the pasts that we often then allow to poison our future.
That was what happened to Eli, who was kidnapped by the Comanches as a 12 year old boy and watched his mother and sister be raped, and killed along with his brother. Who lived with the Comanches and became one of them. Who left the tribe when everyone was killed off by smallpox. Who found himself a “proper” wife (it was more like a shotgun situation, but, hey, you can’t be too picky, I guess) and had a few babies. Who built an incredible empire from the ground up: first cattle, and then oil. Who killed white men and Indians, as Meyers writes. Who was a terrible fucking father and basically a despicable human.
That was what happened to Peter, who was the only voice of reason during the gruesome murders of his neighbors, who watched his mother and oldest brother get murdered during a Comanche raid on their home but managed to escape without a scratch alongside his brother Phinneas, whose “proper” wife was the physical manifestation of all of his self-loathing and negative self-talk, who fell in love with a woman that Eli did everything he could to get rid of until succeeding at long last. Peter, who spent almost his entire life since boyhood knowing that he would never be good enough for anyone in his family.
That was what happened to Jeannie, who spent her whole life proving her mettle in a boys’ club Texas oil dynasty, so strong and yet so deeply insecure, so desperate to live up to the standards she has set for herself – modeled in the image of Colonel Eli McCullough – and utterly unable to do so despite all of her success and power. Who looks at future generations – her children, her daughter’s children – and knows that they are soft, that they are not interested in the family business, that the legacy will likely die with her because no one that comes after her knows what it takes to keep the empire strong.
All of this is what is perfectly summed up in one of Peter’s journal entries, in which he writes, “This family must not be allowed to continue.”
And in an earlier entry about his family, particularly his father, “They have buried me alive.”
That problem in family dynamics – screwing up your kids as a reaction to how you believe your parents screwed you up – is what I saw emerge as the strongest theme in this story. Eli screwed up his kids – who screwed up their own – mostly, in my opinion, because he lived for himself and after his entire tribe died off was unable to form meaningful bonds and connections with others.
Closely tied to that was the idea that you must live for others first, and yourself second, which is an idea that is very common in Native American culture no matter if you’re talking about the Comanches or their parent-tribe the Shoshone or the Ojibwe, the Great Sioux Nation, etc. It is also an idea that is very common in Eastern belief systems.
Until you love yourself, the love you enact for others (the things you do for them) is meaningless. It’s a bunch of empty people performing empty actions, and it adds up to nothing. Whereas the Eastern understanding in love, which is very similar to the Native American understanding of love, is that it’s like a cup. You have to fill that cup for yourself, so that it can overflow and touch others. That’s when the ego is removed from it, so you’re no longer in a position where you feel like saying, look what I have done for you out of the goodness of my heart, but where you’re doing all of those loving things because that is just your essence, your only way of being.
(Eli definitely did not embody at that. Peter did, as much of a coward as he was in certain ways.)
So those ideas of family and love formed the real message of the book for me, and made it an excellent read. I want to end with something that Jeannie McCullough said when reflecting on her late husband Hank, who she loved very much. It’s a passage that I underlined twice and blocked out in brackets because it was so poignant and hard-hitting. It was hard for me to read, actually, because I saw a lot of myself in it.
But it’s worth sharing.
Of course she could not help but be drawn to people like Hank,
people with their own fire, but no matter how much they thought
they loved you or their family or their country, no matter how
they pledged their allegiance, that fire always burned for them alone.