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Texas Blood by Roger D. Hodge

Texas Blood

Texas Blood by Roger D. Hodge
Hardcover
Oct 10, 2017 | 368 Pages
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    Oct 10, 2017 | 368 Pages

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    Oct 10, 2017 | 368 Pages

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Praise

“Heartbreaking and mesmerizing… Hodge combines a journalist’s eye with a native son’s love to give readers clear insight into southwestern Texas’s past, present, and future.” —Publishers Weekly

“Imagine finding out that the land where Cormac McCarthy set one of his most brutal novels was your family’s ranch . . . I’ve read loads of books about Texas but rarely encountered one so deeply of it, so deep the story escapes and becomes a treatise on the twisted American past, and the force exerted by that on our complex present.” —John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead

“A fusion of historical narrative, memoir, exposé, and lament, Texas Blood is a rigorously-researched, compassionate examination of one of our country’s most polarizing states. Hodge casts an unflinching eye on the violence of the borderlands, yet does so with the tender lyricism and spiritual acumen of the best Cormac McCarthy. He deftly traverses the panoply of his home state’s shifting histories and landscapes while never losing sight of the individual: a suppliant walking barefoot, a child’s forgotten grave, the murdered body of a family friend. Texas Blood is a timely, important work: in grappling with Texas, Roger Hodge is holding America’s own deeply-troubled feet to the fire.” —Jamie Quatro, author of I Want to Show You More

“Hypnotically written, deeply researched, profoundly elegiac—the adverbs pile up, and with good reason. Roger D. Hodge has written a wonderful book about our most vexed and peculiarly American state, with an eye for detail and anecdote that’s as loving as it is merciless.” —Tom Bissell, author of Apostle

“A thoughtful portrait of a hard and beautiful place: part ethnography, part literary criticism, part family and regional history, always personal… Sincere, accurate, and open-minded, sometimes intimate, this book qualifies as a true primary source. After the present of Texas Blood has become past, Hodge’s observations and summations will still be well worth reading.” –William T. Vollmann, author of The Dying Grass

Texas Blood blends the personal and the historical to create a vivid portrait of a place unable to transcend its violent past. Roger D. Hodge is a very gifted writer, and he tells his story with the energy of a perfectly paced novel.” —Ron Rash, author of Serena

“In Texas Blood, Roger Hodge takes the reader on journeys through intricate maps of the past and present, through politics and luck and greed and death, but always returning to the beautiful, unforgiving land of his heritage.” —Susan Straight, author of Highwire Moon

“Roger Hodge has crafted a masterful alloy of memoir and reportage, of social criticism and regional history. Texas Blood is an unforgettable foray into our most mysterious, violent, myth-soaked state, a portrait of enormous talent and skill that reveals precisely what America is.” —William Giraldi, author of Hold the Dark

Author Q&A

Q: How did this book come about? 

A: The idea for this book grew inside me over the course of many years. I had long been fascinated by the history of the borderlands, by the stories of smugglers and outlaws and Indian fighting that I had heard growing up. I was curious about my family’s place in that history, but I was never able to find out much about the generations that came before my grandparents. I read all big Texas histories but found them too broad and unsatisfying. So I always had a vague plan to write a long essay that would scratch that itch.

Over the years as I traveled home to Texas to visit my family, I gradually noticed a change in the way people viewed the border. Anxiety about the Mexican drug cartels was growing, and horrific killings on the Mexican side were on the rise. At the same time, a massive law enforcement presence had descended on the borderlands after 9/11—justified primarily in terms of counter-terrorism, however, rather than drug trafficking. In fact, the drug superhighway through remote West Texas appeared to be untouched by all the federal occupation.

At one point, we tried to get the Border Patrol to do something about the drug trafficking that was crossing our ranch on the Rio Grande, and we heard on the down-low that the Feds were monitoring that traffic and hoping it would lead them to bigger fish in the interior of the U.S. Well, that wasn’t going to keep somebody from getting killed if they happened to have a run-in with a cartel operation by accident. So I decided to do some reporting on border security and ended up writing a long feature for Popular Science.

That piece eventually turned into a book proposal.

Q: How did you do the majority of your research for Texas Blood?

A: The book combines historical narrative with family memoir and reporting, so I had a number of different research strategies. First, there was the border reporting, which mostly played out in many long road trips, crisscrossing the state, talking to people, going on ride-alongs with the Border Patrol, chatting up military contractors at security conferences, camping out with archaeologists studying rock art, and so on. I have stacks of notebooks, gigabytes of audio, and thousands of photographs from that reporting. 

At the same time I was doing the library research. I spent untold hours reading primary sources and testimonies. Gradually it dawned on me that everything I was reading was an account of a journey through Texas: Cabeza de Vaca inaugurated the genre in the 1530s with his narrative of walking barefoot and naked across Texas and northern Mexico. Then came the expedition reports of entradas by Spanish soldiers, seeking to establish a colony in the north; the accounts of early Texans, the mountain men, trappers, and scalpers; the prairie tourists and journalists; and the overland diaries of cattlemen and emigrant families and forty-niners on the road to the gold fields of California.

The family research was particularly challenging because my ancestors didn’t leave much writing behind. But a couple of my relatives had spent years working out the family genealogy, and they were extremely generous in sharing their findings. I built on that foundation and tried to fill in some important blanks with research at the Texas Land Office and in the Texas Archives. What was striking to me was how restless they were, moving in one generation from East Tennessee to Missouri to Texas, up and down the western border with the Comanches, out to California and back, then finally settling down along the Mexican border. I hit the road and traced their movements, reading as I went the accounts of others who traveled similar paths at more or less the same time, trying to see the world through the eyes of those I came to think of as my family’s fellow-travelers.

Q: The structure of Texas Blood is very particular. How did you decide upon it? Did you always know you wanted to tell your family’s history first, and then weave in other narratives?

A: Originally I envisioned the book primarily as a work of journalism, with a few personal and historical interludes, but gradually the shape inverted itself and the digressions took over. As a writer and editor I believe that structure best arises organically from the material you’re working with, and in this case the journey—the entrada, the expedition, migration, or filibuster—was the universal form of virtually all my raw material. I decided to structure the book as a series of journeys through both space and time, weaving together my own travels and reporting with my family’s wanderings and the stories of others who had taken on the mortal challenge of crossing that fearsome landscape.

Q: What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about Texas and Texans in general?

A: I suppose that Texans are all appalling Know-Nothings like Rick Perry and George W. Bush. Back home, those yahoos are what my grandmother used to call “all hat and no cattle.” Texas is a vibrant multi-cultural society, but you’d hardly know it from most of what you read and see in the media.

How Texas came to be dominated by its most retrograde and backward elements is a fascinating story. The yahoos eventually triumphed in Texas but the story didn’t have to end up that way.

The one thing everyone knows about Texas is the Battle of the Alamo, but most of Texas history occurred before the Alamo, before the Anglo colonists arrived; it was the history of the native peoples who lived there over the course of 14,000 years, some of whom left huge magnificent cosmological murals in rock shelters along the Pecos River before they moved on as the climate changed and water disappeared. When the Spanish arrived, they found hundreds of different native groups, speaking a dizzying array of languages. Even after European settlement, all the way up to the American Civil War, the dominant power in Texas was not the Spanish or the Mexicans or the Anglo Texans; it was the Comanches. 
 
Q: There is obviously a lot of talk in the news about Trump’s wall. What are your thoughts on all that?

A: In some respects Trump’s Wall is a political fantasy, an empty campaign promise he’s determined to keep despite the fact that it’s an operational fantasy, a ludicrous and impossible object. On the other hand, the Wall is already in existence, and I don’t really mean the 700 miles of fencing. Those eighteen-foot-high fences and walls are not a barrier anyway. No, the Wall is not meant to keep people out, it’s meant to divide those of us who are already here. On one side of the wall are those, like Trump, who want to “make America white again,” who talk about how the “complexion” of America is changing, who want to send all the brown-skinned people who speak Spanish or Arabic or any other language but English back where they came from. On the other side are those who embrace cultural, gender, and religious diversity and see it as a source of beauty and strength. Trump’s Wall already divides every community in this country.

When it comes to the border itself, the Wall doesn’t demarcate the international boundary so much as it defines an invisible barrier roughly 100 miles inland, trapping many thousands of undocumented people in what can be seen as the world’s longest prison. People are being walled into their own homes. In Texas, under Trump, any trivial encounter with law enforcement can now trigger deportation. People are being pulled over for minor traffic violations and taken into custody by the Border Patrol. Trump’s Wall is already doing its awful work, separating families, leaving U.S. citizen children along without anyone to care for them after their parents are deported.
With the rise of mass biometric collection, people will soon be walking around with the Wall inside their own bodies.

The border zone has long been a laboratory for mass surveillance, and under Trump that process of experimentation is intensifying. I write in the book that the border is gradually expanding to fill the entire country.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned when you traveled to the border and met with officials there?

A: Texas Blood was written before the rise of Trump, obviously, but border anxiety was already at a pretty high pitch when I was doing my reporting. Even so, most Customs and Border Protection officials I spoke with were very clear-eyed about what can and cannot be accomplished with regard to border security. No one believes that fences or walls will keep people out; they see the physical barriers as very limited measures that mostly serve to slow people down for a few minutes at most. 

The hope among the officials I spoke with was that comprehensive immigration reform would eliminate the undocumented migration problem by giving people who want to work in the United States, and those here who wish to employ them, a clear and accessible path for doing so. That way all the immigration traffic would pass through the ports of entry in an orderly and legal fashion, leaving the border patrol to focus on drug trafficking between the ports. The solution to border insecurity is not a physical barrier, it’s good policy.

Most of those officials are still on the job, but you won’t hear that kind of candid talk any more, and Trump has probably set back the policy discussion by at least a decade.

Q: How does the discussion of the border wall link up with the war on drugs?

A: Drug prohibition in the United States and the host of bad policies known collectively as the “war on drugs” is the root cause of much of the instability, violence, and corruption in Latin America. As long as the United States remains a vast market for illegal drugs, there will be producers south of the border willing to meet that demand.
Many of the people arriving at the southern border today are not traditional economic migrants.

The large numbers of families and unaccompanied children who began appearing in South Texas a few years ago were refugees of drug-fueled violence in Central America. The gangs that terrorize El Salvador, Honduras, and other countries originated in Los Angeles. Our policy of deporting gang members and drug offenders had the unintended effect of turning L.A. street gangs into trans-national criminal syndicates. The Mexican drug cartels responsible for much of the violence in Mexico are also the direct byproduct of drug prohibition in the United States.

Q: Do you miss living in Texas?

A: I’ve lived in New York for 26 years now, and I’ve raised my children here, so Brooklyn is very much my home now, but I think about Texas all the time and I spend as much time there as I can. When I was editing the Oxford American magazine, one of my favorite issues was the one we did on Texas music. Although I love the music, the food, and so much else about Texas culture, what I miss the most (aside from seeing my family more often) is the landscape, the sky, the sounds, the smells, and the overall feeling there that I’ve never been able to find anywhere else.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: My work at The Intercept keeps me pretty busy, especially now that we have Trump as president, but I’m sure another book idea will seize hold of me before too long.

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