Click here to read reviewer Phillip Tomasso III's take on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
In books and movies, Americans love to remember the Alamo. Less remembered, and more complicated, is the uncertain period that immediately followed the Texas Revolution, when Mexico, America, and the newly declared Republic tried to decide exactly what had been decided by the battle of San Jacinto, and what if any land the Mexican government was prepared to surrender. In 1842, the argument once again turned into armed conflict, when Mexico sent a small force into San Antonio. Some Texans responded with a raid against the disputed town of Mier. The would-be war ended with the capture of the Texan raiding party.
Neither the behavior of the Texan party nor their capture and treatment later were the stuff of heroic legend, but Rick Bass sets out to keep them the stuff of history. The book’s title, The Diezmo, alludes to the most famous part of the incident, when the captured soldiers were executed by lots. This part of the tale is often mentioned as a bit of stand-alone legend, but in Bass’ book it’s only another incident among many.
Despite the title, The Diezmo is concerned with the wider story surrounding the Texan captives, the Mexican soldiers holding them, and the political situation of their times. Bass is less interested in an exact political history than in the feel of the time and tries to ride along with the expedition by climbing in the head of one of the party, a young volunteer named James Alexander.
Alexander is largely a non-entity. He mentions that the other members of his group find him easy to forget; distressingly, so does the reader. Even his name, rarely mentioned, is forgettable. Short on feeling, long on philosophizing, Alexander too often becomes the clear voice of the author’s concerns, instead of a first-person witness or an invisible narrator in the mode of Gatsby or Maugham.
Alexander is the only part of The Diezmo that could be considered forgettable. The other members of the Mier expedition glow with passion. There are fighters with a passion for war, of course; Alexander’s friend James Shephard is changed by the crucible of his own hate from a mild young man to an almost inhuman engine of death. Captain Fisher and Green are opposing in intensity without being trite opposites of “good cop, bad cop.” The drive for blood and glory is not the only passion on display. Perhaps the most compelling character of The Diezmo is Charles McLaughlin, the troop’s artist, who rises above the terrors and sins of the expedition through a blazing focus on capturing it all on paper. Mexico’s culture is shown more through a road-building lieutenant than any of the soldiers who chain and guard the Mier expedition on their dire way.
The landscapes of the book are a glory. Not the trite desert of Westerns, this is a full and living portrait with all the beauty and richness familiar to those who love it, with all the variations of landscape and weather that have made the land worth fighting for and with. Mexico and its citizens, too, are shown in detail, with all the variety of political opinion and social attitudes to be expected in a country so recently recovered from civil war.
Bass admits to writing The Diezmo in reaction to current political events, and his own sense of political distress sometimes translates too directly to the page. These direct comments paradoxically deliver a weaker message, taking away from the power of Alexander’s story to inspire thought on its own. But this is a minor flaw, easy to lose in the wild expanses of Texas or the darkness of a Mexican cell.