THE GATES OF THE ALAMO by Stephen Harrigan

(The Alamo)

The story of the Alamo is clouded in myths and counter myths.  Your personal belief is probably dependent upon your high school social studies education.  It is a story that most Americans know because of the countless books and films on the subject.  What is clear is that, it forms a major component of Texas history.  In Stephen Harrigan’s THE GATES OF THE ALAMO we are presented with a new approach to the story through the eyes of fictional characters; Edmund McGowan, a loner dedicated to botanical research; Mary Mott, a widowed innkeeper trying to keep what remains of her family together; her son Terrell, who grows and matures into manhood as the novel evolves.  This epic story has been told before, but not in this manner, a blend of astute historical research and fictional imagination that should satisfy all who are interested in the topic.

Harrigan begins by introducing Terrell Mott as a ninety-one year old survivor of the Alamo and former mayor of San Antonio attending the 75th commemoration of the battle.  From here, Harrigan takes the reader on a journey that integrates many historical and fictional characters as he constructs a fairly objective account of the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and what transpired after the bloodshed.  The reader is exposed to the Mexican viewpoint through historical characters such as; Colonel Juan Almonte, a member of general Santa Anna’s staff, the dictator himself, Primer Sargento Blas Angel Montoya, a member of the Mexican northern army; to fictional characters, Telesfero Villasena, a Lieutenant in an engineer battalion and Santa Anna’s map maker, and Isabella, a Mayan girl seized by Mexican officers.  Among the American settlers aside from McGowan and the Motts the story is conveyed through historical figures like; Jim Bowie, a drunkard and fortune seeker, Sam Houston, a rather two faced politician and Andrew Jackson wan bee, Stephen F. Austin, the most reasonable of the independence movement leadership, Davey Crockett, a Tennessee politician and Indian fighter, and William Barrett Travis, a young man thrust into leadership beyond his capabilities.

(Sam Houston)

One of the things that most Americans do not realize is that three-fifths of the continental United States was taken from Mexico during the Mexican War between 1846 and 1848.  The issues that led up to the war stem from American colonists who were invited by the Mexican government to settle in Texas in the 1820s.  The invitation was contingent upon settler acceptance of abiding by the catholic faith, obeying Mexican law, and not transporting slaves to the new territory.  By the 1830s the settlers began to chafe under Mexican restrictions setting the backdrop for Harrigan’s novel.

The first half of the book seems as if a storm is brewing.  The storm is Santa Anna’s goal of blunting the Texas independence movement.  As Harrigan proceeds with his story he does a commendable job; developing his characters, particularly the emergence of a strong bond between Mary Mott and Edward McGowan.  In a time period when death is predominant, two lonely people, who have suffered deep personal trauma come together to try and make sense of their surroundings. For Mary, it is the loss of her husband and daughter, and fears about losing her son.  For Edmund, it is the creation of a shell around himself because of childhood events and trying to find solace in a world of plants, a world that fills the emotional void in his life.

(Davey Crockett)

THE GATES OF THE ALAMO is historical fiction at its best.  The historical characters integrated among those created provide a realistic account of events as Harrigan leads the reader to the fall of San Antonio de Bexar and rebel control of the former Spanish mission, the Alamo.  Both the characters and the reader are aware that in a few months’ time Santa Anna will bring a large army to retake it, which dominates the second half of the novel.  The rebels do their best to make the mission an impregnable fort, but as history has shown, they failed.

Harrigan places the reader inside the Alamo as the Mexican bombardment pounds the fort.  His descriptions are extremely realistic and the plight of the Alamo’s residents is clear.  He leaves out few details, even integrating Mexican music that was designed to unsettle those imprisoned inside the Alamo, just waiting for the next cannonball.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is Harrigan’s recreation of character dialogue that occurs when decisions are made.  We are inside Santa Anna’s headquarters as he consults with his generals.  The reader is a witness to Travis and Crockett trying to figure a way out of their predicament, but whatever they try, is doomed to failure.

(General Santa Anna)

Harrigan’s novel is a work of fiction, but he must be applauded for the voluminous research undertaken to recreate his subject.  Obviously, there is a great deal that he has imagined, but embedded in the dialogue and narrative is a fairly accurate portrayal of events.  Further, he does a remarkable job discussing the Mexican and rebel viewpoints, and as things unfold he tries to remain as objective as possible.  Most people know how the story concludes in terms of the Alamo, but what they do not know is the fate of the key characters.  For this reason alone, Harrigan has produced an air of suspense that should hold the reader, a bonus, because the historical presentation alone makes Harrigan’s effort extremely worthwhile.

(The Alamo)

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