A Line in the Sand

For some reason this is always lumped in with the classics of the Dear America canon, but I have to say that it never really grabbed me for some reason. Maybe the reason is that I’ve never set foot in Texas and don’t understand the folklore of the Alamo, or possibly that I don’t know a whole lot about the Alamo in general (I don’t know why I don’t just start off every blog entry with “I know almost nothing about this,” because it’s pathetic and true).

A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Gonzales, Texas, 1836, Sherry Garland, 1998.

lucinda lawrence.jpg

The story of the Alamo is tied up in the story of Mexico versus Texas versus the United States, which means there’s already a lot of moving parts going on here. Lucinda, our 13-year-old writer, lives in the most distant Texas colony imaginable, so far away that supplies come in only twice a year by wagon. Her family farms cotton—parents, two older brothers and one younger, and Lucinda in the middle. Lucinda goes to school with a few other girls, including her best friend Mittie, but other than that very little happens in their sleepy town until war talk starts sparking up. Their part of Texas belongs to Mexico, but there are far more Americans settled there. Mexico has a more powerful army, but lots of Texans are agitating for their independence, even if it means a mean and bloody war.

Lucinda’s father is injured badly when he’s gored by an ox, causing terrible injuries and a bad fever. While he’s recuperating, he argues with Lucinda’s brother Willis, who complains about Santa Anna, saying he’s a cruel dictator and wastes taxpayer money on fripperies, and Lucinda worries that Willis and his friends will be first in line to sign up for the militia if it comes to that. Lucinda and her brothers even have to flee to the river bottom when the Mexicans threaten to invade the town—then men from nearby settlements come back to Gonzales to prepare for a battle.

Stephen Austin, the new commander in chief of the Texians, organizes the troops and arranges for them to head toward San Antonio to face the Mexicans there. Willis goes with them, which nearly breaks their father’s heart, in a ragtag group of barely-equipped men who barely have a weapon apiece. Lucinda’s uncle Henry goes with them, and they win their first battle just south of San Antonio while the rest of the family stays at home and picks the cotton crop. They have their sacks of pecans stolen by a couple of Volunteers who claim they haven’t been paid anything since coming from the US to fight for Texas. The Volunteers are wreaking havoc through the town while most of the men are away—one afternoon when Lucinda is visiting with Mittie, they come barreling through the town and Mittie’s mother loads their flintlock rifle to defend her home after they try to break down the door with an axe.

When they hear from Willis and the other men, they complain that they’re cold and hungry and bored and there hasn’t been any fighting to speak of. They’re trying to raise more money and volunteers, because morale is so low that the army there is practically falling apart. Lucinda’s father is sick again with his leg ailing him, and her mother is busy trying to keep everything together at home. Then at the beginning of December the Texans attack San Antonio and rage through the whole city. The Mexicans surrender, only killing four Texans, and Lucinda begins to think that the war is over and things will return to normal. Oh sweet summer child, you should be so lucky. Willis returns home, bringing news of their mother’s brother Isaac in San Antonio, just in time for Christmas that year.

Lucinda hopes their Christmas is going to be as good as last year’s, and her mother makes pumpkin pie and roasts a turkey and it’s even better. They’re all rejoicing that they’ll be safe and secure, and exchange little gifts with their friends and relatives. But by the middle of January they hear that Davy Crockett is heading toward Texas and Santa Anna is heading their way with thousands of soldiers, so it seems that things may start heating up again. Isaac’s wife Esperanza is expecting a child at the end of February, and Lucinda’s mother plans on heading to San Antonio to be with her, but Isaac keeps urging her to stay in Gonzales where she’ll be safe. Then Willis says he’s going to San Antonio himself to return to the fighting force, and suddenly everything seems much worse than it was before.

Lucinda’s mother says she’s going to San Antonio no matter what, and they pack the wagon and head out against her father’s wishes. On the way their wagon breaks down, so they abandon it and walk back to Gonzales when they’re rescued by none other than Davy Crockett and his men themselves! They give the news that they’re coming to join the Texas army, and Lucinda notes “I must admit meeting him will probably be the high spot of my life.” This is probably the only mildly funny part in what is not exactly a hilarious book.

The family heads towards San Antonio, which is surprisingly bustling and full of excitement for a town under the threat of war. They stay with Lucinda’s uncle Isaac, his wife Esperanza, and their brand-new son, who came too early after a difficult birth. They socialize with everyone else who’s come to town, and the whole place has the air of a big fiesta until they hear that Santa Anna is less than a week away. Isaac keeps saying it’s just rumours and nothing will happen for months, but that doesn’t stop his servants from picking up and leaving in the middle of the night one night.

Lucinda is allowed to go to her first party, but when she returns she finds the whole house in a wreck because Santa Anna is just eight miles away and everyone is fleeing as fast as they can. But while Lucinda’s family is packing to leave as fast as possible, Willis and Isaac go with the rest of the Volunteers to defend the Alamo. The family makes it out of town, but close enough that they can hear the siege going on. As they head back home, they see groups and groups of men heading for the Alamo to help with the defense, but it’s already too late.

Lucinda’s fifteen-year-old brother Lemuel disappears one night, and they’re confident he’s gone to the Alamo with the rest of the men, even though he’s practically a kid. In March Texas declares its independence, and a thousand men are collected to rescue the besieged Alamo, but it’s too late. Just a few days later they receive the terrible news that the Alamo has fallen and all the men put to death—including Isaac and Willis and maybe twenty of the thirty or so men in Gonzales. The Mexicans begin to advance through the area, and Lucinda’s mother almost puts up a fight against fleeing—since they still haven’t heard from Lemuel—but they pack up as much as they can and leave late at night just before the town is burned by their own men, to keep the Mexicans from getting it.

They’re stopped by the San Antonio River, which is too high for them to cross, just hundreds and hundreds of women and children and men too old or crippled to serve—including Lucinda’s father, who is unable to walk after never letting his injuries heal properly. One of their mules dies, which means they can’t haul their wagon, and they’ll have to walk—so Lucinda’s father has to be left behind. They’re ill and forced to hide in the woods, but keep walking and walking mile after mile after mile.

When they finally reach Liberty, where Lucinda’s aunt and cousins live, Lucinda is blind in one eye and profoundly grateful to be able to stay in one place. They’re on the verge of fleeing again, but Santa Anna is at last turned back and the book ends there—not with a triumph, but the tiniest, faintest spectre of hope.

Rating: B. This is such a strange one for me. Because I know so little about the Alamo and have never set foot in Texas, it has no emotional resonance with me, but I can definitely see how it would for people for whom the story is more close to home. I think the story itself takes a while to get going, and it suffers from one of the common problems surrounding diary-style books, which is that you don’t always get a great sense of who the protagonist is when it falls into a “here’s the events that happened” report. The other characters are all so interesting that Lucinda almost fades into the background a little bit, which is a shame! It’s not a bad book, but as one of the earlier books (number 12!) it’s usually considered one of the heavy hitters, which baffles me a bit. But it’s well-written enough for me, and interesting enough that I learned something, so I’ll forgive all of that and let it be.

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