As a book based on a PBS documentary, it’s a big coffee table affair with plenty of photos. And there are some extraordinary pictures in there – while much of the period of history they’re looking at (from November 1528 with a some shipwrecked Spaniards washing ashore on Galveston Island to the early 1900s) was pre-camera, much of it was post. Moreover there are maps, paintings and photos of relatively untouched landscape to illustrate earlier times.
That being said, there’s also plenty of text. And being that they’ve consciously chosen to largely illustrate the time by retelling the stories of extraordinary and/or typical individuals of the times, there are many engaging and fascinating stories. C’mon, the whole interaction between European settlers and the native Americans is chock full of tragedy, adventure and colour – you’d have to work hard to make this sort of content boring (although it’s been done). It’s a very palatable way of reading history, not getting bogged down in statistics or alternate interpretations. Of course in their selection of material you’re definitely getting only one version of events, and the bias, while generally subtle, is unavoidable. But, hey, given that I hardly had any version before, this gave me a lot more of an idea than I had.
You have to suffer the odd overblown essay thrown in here and there, where guest writers try to outdo each other for sentimentality and bogus psuedo-spiritual flapdoodle about (FX: turn the reverb right up) ‘The West’. At least it’s not quite as silly as the religious fervour some attach to Baseball as some sort of sacred ritual – but it is still silly. Sure, the West is an amazing place, it’s more than just some rocks and sand – we get it. You going on in with some gushy mysticism really just cheapens it – let it speak for itself.
Well, that’s what I reckon anyway. But, as I said, the self-conscious attempts at grand writing are only aberrations, most of the time you are treated with amazing but true stories. If that’s the sort of history you’re after, it delivers.