A battle wrapped in lore, surrounded by myth

THE GATES OF THE ALAMO By Stephen Harrigan Alfred A. Knopf 581 pp., $25

Had the Battle of the Alamo never happened, there might not be a Texas today. But more important than being deprived of the Lone Star State, America would also be deprived of a momentous metaphor.

The very name echoes with the belief there are some things worth dying for, and that we are capable of courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Indeed, the grim little mission still reverberates with the big bang of Texas creation. Other dates might live in infamy, but in Texas, where legend and fact are often as inextricable as they are in this epic, March 6, 1836, is when time began.

Hoary lore about the battle is still retold with the zeal of a Pentecostal sermon, and disagreements over the "truth" unfold with the passion of holy wars. Eight generations later, it's still possible to scrounge up a dandy argument in Texas about whether Davy Crockett died swinging his Kentucky flintlock in hand-to-hand combat or was executed as a prisoner after the fight on Santa Anna's orders.

So there is no surprise that a gifted Texas writer such as Stephen Harrigan would return to the touchstone of this epochal event to tell a riveting new story.

The year is 1835, and the place is the neglected, aggrieved Mexican territory called Texas. Mexico itself is a fledgling nation, barely 15 tumultuous years after winning its own independence from Spain.

At center stage in Harrigan's resonant novel are three people whose paths cross in the desperate moment before war: Edmund McGowan, a naturalist whose life's work is in danger; Mary Mott, a strong-willed widow who keeps an inn on the Texas coast; and her 16-year-old son, Terrell, whose passage into manhood leads him directly into the crucible of the Alamo.

As Edmund and Mary pursue Terrell into the shabby mission in San Antonio, their lives are further entangled with the authentic figures of the battle: the eloquent, brooding Col. William Travis, the profane schemer (but beloved leader) Jim Bowie, and wandering frontiersman David Crockett, a former Tennessee congressman who chips in to help the "Texians" establish their new republic.

The characters, real and fictional, are enfolded so deftly in richly authentic detail that it's easy to forget this is a deeply imagined yarn. And that is the goal of the historic novelist, even with a myth-enshrouded event such as the Alamo: to blend fact and fancy until they are indiscernible, as with this glimpse of Crockett:

"[Mary] could not see Crockett's eyes in the darkness and shadows of the church, but she supposed them to be bright with self-delusion - a shattered 50-year-old man still hostage to his boyhood dreams of flight and renewal."

To complicate the delicate balance between fact and fiction, some of Harrigan's fictional characters are, in fact, doppelgngers. Terrell Mott, for one, is clearly modeled after the real-life John William Smith, a courier who was sent out of the Alamo twice on secret missions and was returning to fight when the fort fell. Smith (and his simulacrum Mott) was elected mayor of San Antonio after the war.

On the other side of this through-the-looking-glass tale are two fictional Mexican Army soldiers who provide a perspective only scantly considered on this side of the Rio Grande, perhaps the first time Americans get any sympathetic sense of the attackers' viewpoint. Their lives in Santa Anna's Army are as vigorously researched as the rest of the book.

Harrigan, a former senior editor at Texas Monthly, has written novels. His screen credits have delved into historic fiction, with scripts about the Donner Party and Huey Long, among others. Perhaps owing to Harrigan's cinematic vision, "The Gates of the Alamo" is a picturesque historical saga comparable to "Lonesome Dove" and "The Killer Angels." This book is a new masterpiece in the literature of fact.

Aside from the comfort of knowing the historic context is as accurate as it can be, the strength of Harrigan's novel is its superior storytelling. Given the Alamo fervor that still runs deep in Harrigan's native Texas, that's no small thing. But nothing is small in Texas.

*Ron Franscell, a Wyoming newspaperman and novelist, is the author of 'Angel Fire.'

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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