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Reading is fundamental. It is a fundamental part of every person’s personal and professional lives. Books can teach or entertain. Some authors use books to make statements or express their personal views. Some authors deal in the facts while others prefer fiction. History is an important departure point for many authors. Here are ten novels that explore Texas, and more specifically Houston, history throughout the decades.
Texas in the 1920s were a time for financial gain and prosperity. Many Texans were thriving off the oil boom in 1901, but this prosperity would not last long and many who had found success would lose it during the Great Depression. A book that depicts the Texas of the 1920s is Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel In The Land of Cotton. While Dorothy is a native Texan, she spent most of her life writing in New York. Her connection to Texas remains strong through the years as many of her books were set in Texas. In The Land of Cotton explores plantation culture in East Texas. The book describes growing up on a cotton plantation and its effect on those involved in the plantation system.
The Great Depression raged across the United States during the 1930s. Many people were suffering due to the economic downturn and the stock market crash of October 1929. Texans were also feeling the economic pressures as many people had lost their jobs and could not support themselves or their families. Even with the oil industry booming in urban areas of Texas, most rural communities were still made up of plantations. Ruth Cross in particular wrote an impactful book during the 1930s titled The Big Road. The novel explores East Texas plantation culture and depicts the differences between rural and urban values and work ethics.
War is on everyone’s mind during the 1940s. World War II was impacting everyone in the United States, and Texas was no exception. During the 1940s, many rural Texans moved into the cities as more and more jobs became available to help with war efforts. Hart Stilwell documents this rural to urban migration and its difficulties in the book Uncovered Wagon, which was published in 1947. This autobiographical fiction depicts Stilwell’s relationship with his father growing up in a rural Texas society. The father is overbearing and tyrannical, and it impacts the son and his personality as they move from farm to farm trying to make enough money to survive. The book shows the difficulties of rural life and helps show why many Texans began moving into the cities looking for financial stability during the 1940s.
The 1950s were a time of recovery and changing values for Texans. World War II had ended and everyone in the country was reestablishing a normal way of life. From 1950-1957, all of Texas faced a drought that sucked up the water and dried out the land. Many people struggled during this time both in the cities and out in the rural areas. Crops were scarce, and water was even scarcer during this decade. Native Texan Elmer Kelton published his novel, The Time It Never Rained, in 1973. About 1950s Texas, this novel depicts a struggling rancher’s attempt to remain independent throughout the legendary seven-year Texas drought.
The 1960s are known as a time of gaining racial equality in the United States. The Civil Rights movement occurred in this decade, and many African Americans were fighting for their rights and freedoms. Fiction is a great place to discuss historical events and public mindsets. In the first of the Hackberry Holland series published in 1971, native Texan James Lee Burke depicts 1960s Texas in his novel titled Lay Down My Sword & Shield. This book is set during the Civil Rights Movement and captures the political mindset of Texans during the 1960s. Written in the mystery genre, Lay Down My Sword & Shield is about an alcoholic ex-POW, from the Korean War, attorney who tries to help a war buddy wrongfully convicted of a crime.
The 1970s were still a time of protest and change. Those seeking racial equality were still fighting for their rights and freedoms. Many Americans were protesting the Vietnam War and its political implications. Many Texans were part of these movements and political changes. In fact, during the 1970s and 1980s, many Mexicans and Latinos were crossing the border into Texas. The Mexican population in Texas swelled greatly during those 20 years. Author Thomas H. McNeely depicts the social turbulence of 1970s Houston in his novel Ghost Horse, published in 2014. This novel is about a young boy and his relationships with his family and friends as he goes out on an adventure to make an animated Super 8 film. Set in a story of self-discovery, McNeely shows the boys changing opinions of his own thoughts and the actuality of reality in the past and in the present.
The 1980s saw many government changes. Reagan was president during this decade and made many economic changes that benefitted Americans. He is a respected and loved US President. The Cold War was also occurring during the 1980s, which was a time of political and military tension between Eastern and Western European powers. All eyes were turned to the government during the 1980s. Author George Crile, producer of the television show 60 Minutes, delves into government dealings with the novel titled Charlie Wilson’s War. This novel describes a Texas Democrat in the House of Representatives who covertly attempted to gain funding for Afghani freedom fighters that were at war with invading Soviet soldiers. Some aspects of the book are suspected to be true, and the novel was eventually made into a film with the same title starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
The 1990s — the last decade before the new millennium. Technology was raging to the forefront during the time as the Internet began to take hold and become a major part of societies worldwide. The Millennial Generation was beginning during this time period, evolving under the immanent change to the 2000s. One native Texan short story writer branched out into novel writing using 1990s Houston as his backdrop. Andrew Porter wrote and published In Between Days in 2012. The book describes a typical Houston family thrown into chaos and dysfunction when the daughter is expelled from her East Coast college. This novel helps to show the changing family dynamics of Texan, and more generally American, families during the 1990s and into today.
The 2000s saw pop culture movements, political issues, and the resurgence of individuals seeking social quality. The 9/11 terrorist attacks left Americans shocked and stunned. The Internet and smartphones began cementing their hold into American society. The LGBT community also began to make serious strides for marriage equality during the 2000s. One author uses Houston as the backdrop for a novel exploring homosexuality. In his novel released in 2001 titled Cosmology of Bing, author Mitch Cullin explores the sexuality of an aging college professor who develops an obsession and eventual relationship with one of his students and is eventually forced to face his own demons. The book also features a second subplot about the college student and his experiences with the professor as well as the developing relationship that he has with his roommate.
The 2010s are not finished yet. Environmental issues have come to the forefront during these five years as people begin to realize the impact humans are having on the planet. Technology continues to evolve and become more important in everyone’s daily life. Thankfully, reading still continues to be an important American pastime. One Houston writer uses his home city as a backdrop for his latest novel. Nathan Nix’s The Drifters is a modern day love story about a kid who has recently graduated from The Woodlands High School. The story follows her as she is forced to remain in Houston and attend community college and eventually finds herself after being pulled into the lives of the outcast group of artists and musicians. The Drifters tells of the struggles many Texan and American kids are facing as the competition for college admission and success continues to grow and grow.
By Samantha Beckett
An avid foodie, baker, music lover, and Houstonian.