Review by Frank Plowright
The 1836 incident at the Alamo in Texas remains an American historical touchstone, not least because revered American hero Davy Crockett died there. Texas in those days was disputed territory, not part of the USA despite Washington’s territorial ambitions, which were fuelled by rebellions in Texas against the Mexican rulers. As shown by Nathan Hale, the year preceding the Alamo siege had been particularly successful for native Texans, who’d seen off every attempt by the Mexican army to restore order.
Hale doesn’t begin there, though, going back further to the 1820s and Stephen Austin’s American settlement becoming embroiled in Texas’ attempt to secede from Mexico and become a new independent country. The result was Mexico banning any further American settlement. Hale then introduces assorted people important to later events, delving into their past.
As he’s done in earlier works, Hale breathes life into history, mythologising the events and the people, providing them with even greater stature, but in a manner that engages and thrills, and importantly always explains. It’s history as adventure comic if you will. The approach is particularly suited to the Alamo as it involved a large cast, many of whom had interesting pasts worth telling. Anyone only aware of Jim Bowie as the first to have the long knife that bears his name will learn of a brave, gung-ho and lucky man, but one with a past we now frown upon.
The story of the Alamo is one of the wrong place at the wrong time for Americans. Caught between Mexican General Santa Anna attempting to impose himself as a dictator and the settlers in Texas fighting for independence, the Alamo was used to house a growing number of Mexican troops. It was liberated in 1835, but crucially once that occurred many American volunteers returned home to their farms, leaving only a skeleton defence. As much as anything what happened afterwards was a series of tragic mistakes and misunderstandings, and Hale brings this out, with the call for reinforcements only prompting more mishaps. He also examines the myths and untruths, of which there are plenty, and explores near simultaneous events such as the now not so remembered tragedy of Goliad, which featured no wild frontiersmen, but was a greater cause for anger.
As ever, this is a solidly researched and clear laying out of events, but there is a caveat. To begin the series of historical explanations, Hale settled on the story of his namesake, and had the historical Nathan Hale, his hangman and the supervising British provost whisked into a magical storybook of history. It enabled Hale to tell his own story in the first person. All these volumes later, however, those characters are a millstone. They’re there to avoid footnotes, spark explanations, and provide comedy relief for younger readers, but there are other narrative methods that might be more suitable. In the case of The Alamo they add an extra layer of complication to what’s already a complicated background, which Hale then complicates further via introducing their Mexican counterparts. They form a sort of comic Greek chorus, but aren’t very funny. Having used them for so long, Hale’s caught between a rock and a hard place, but would be better just dispensing with them and concentrating on the historical stories. It’s his general tone that works, and he doesn’t need comedy relief.
A longer than usual research and reference section closes the book, featuring as many actual pictures of the main players as possible. This is also available along with Big Bad Ironclad and Donner Dinner Party in a card sleeve as the second Hazardous Tales Box Set.