Texana Book Reviews -- June 1998
(by Mike Cox)


Adopting Bunnies
(June 26, 1998)

In West Texas, it's a long drive before you even get to miles from nowhere.

We were on I-10, still some miles east of nowhere, headed home from a visit to Alpine and Fort Davis. The sun was down, daughter Hallie was still up, and wife Linda was engrossed in a paperback copy of Mary Karr's "True Lies" by flashlight.

"I want the flashlight!" Hallie said, quietly but firmly.

"No, Mommy's reading," Linda said with equal firmness. "Time to go night-night."

"I...want...the...flashlight!!" Hallie said, a little louder.

"I said no," Linda said.

"I WANT THE FLASHLIGHT!!!" Hallie demanded. Linda, still trying to concentrate on her book, again said no. Wise father, I didn't say anything, knowing better than to interject myself into this mother-daughter moment. After all, I was only the driver here.

Having "asked" three times, Hallie went nuclear, quickly reaching four-year-old meltdown.

Moments later, Hallie had the flashlight. This left Linda with nothing better to do than focus on my driving. Welcome to summer vacation.

"Don't shine it in Daddy's eyes," I said, looking purposefully at Hallie in the rear view mirror just to show I still had some authority. But she didn't see me. She was busy reading, shining the light on her book and calmly turning the pages.

Okay, we cratered. We gave in to the demands of a terrorist. At least Hallie's fit was over wanting to read. Some parents, unfortunately, don't have it so lucky.

On a normal evening, of course, someone reads to Hallie. That's obviously what she wanted, because she was soon sound asleep, little book and big flashlight still in her hands.

The Texas State Library is working this summer to spread the word on the "Adopt a Bunny" program started by children's author and illustrator Rosemary Wells. The program, intended for pre-school to upper elementary kids, is aimed at emphasizing the joys of reading with a buddy -- parent, older sibling, or a friend. "Adopt a Bunny" is a follow-up to Wells' 1995 program, "Read to a Bunny."

In addition to being satisfying on a basic nurturing level, reading to a child, according to "Adopt a Bunny" material prepared by the library, helps children develop listening skills, enhances their vocabulary, creates self-reliance, introduces the symbolic use of language, develops interpersonal behavior skills, exposes a child to different cultures and stimulates imagination and creativity. In other words, it's good for children.

Some tips on reading to or listening to your "bunny":

For more detailed information on "Adopt a Bunny," contact the state library's Library Development Division at 512-463-5460 or go to their web site at www.tsl.state.tx.us/LD/pubs.htm.

In addition to keeping in mind all the State Library's suggestions, next time we take our "bunny" to West Texas, we'll be packing two flashlights -- one for Linda and one for Hallie.


Red Blood and Black Ink
(June 19, 1998)

As a cub reporter on the staff of a newspaper in West Texas, one of my jobs was to compile a short column called "Looking Backwards."

The task of culling brief excerpts from back issues for republication on the newspaper's editorial page routinely was assigned to the newest reporter because it was considered drudge work. Who could possibly enjoy sitting in a small, dark room reading old issues of a newspaper on microfilm?

Well, for one, me. Like the wily Brer Rabbit said, "Oh please don't throw me in the briar patch."

More than 30 years later, I still like reading old newspapers. And books about old newspapers.

David Dary, head of the University of Oklahoma's journalism department, has written an excellent book on newspapering in the old West, "Red Blood and Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West." Published by Alfred A. Knopf, the 345-page book sells for $30.

With many choice newspaper excerpts pulled from microfilm or bound copies, Dary has produced a book that shows just how important newspapers were to the settlement of Trans-Mississippi America. His book is both a pleasure to read and a solid overview of frontier journalism, from an account of the first newspaper published on the western side of the big river (Joseph Charless' Missouri Gazette, founded in St. Louis in 1808) to a set of appendices detailing the tools of the printer's trade and the now nearly archaic language of the hot lead days.

One colorful Texas newspaper editor was Charles DeMorse, "proprietor" of The Northern Standard. Published in the Northeast Texas city of Clarksville, the newspaper's influence in early Texas extended well beyond its trade area.

Though it ended publication in 1880, The Northern Standard remains important today because virtually its whole run is preserved on microfilm. Sadly, many of its Texas contemporaries did not survive for posterity. Or if they have managed to make it to this late point of the 20th Century, they remain undiscovered, foxing away in the attic of some old house or building.

Lorna Geer Sheppard of Carrollton spent many hours reading the Standard on microfilm at the Dallas Public Library. The result is an interesting and useful book she edited and compiled, "An Editor's View of Early Texas: Texas in the Days of the Republic as Depicted in The Northern Standard." Published by Eakin Press, the 382-page book is available in softcover at $19.95.

In going through the microfilm, Sheppard copied stories or excerpts from The Standard by category, from obituaries to examples of early Texas humor. This material shows what Texas was like during the days of the republic when buffalo and Indians still freely roamed the prairie.

Writing about firebrand editors willing to die in a duel on a dusty street in support of a published opinion must have put Dary in the mood to cut loose with his own editorial 12 gauge.

In his five-page afterword, Dary offers his closing argument in defense of newspapers and their importance in the history of the West.

"Newspapers served as catalysts for social change," he writes. "They served as a bridge between the West and the more settled East: Reflecting eastern culture, they usually were the first such transplant in each new western town. The establishment of a newspaper gave hope that the community would soon erase its frontier status."

Not only did these frontier sheets have enormous impact hot off the press, when their ink was still black and their newsprint white, they are important today as primary source material for the historian, Dary argues.

Unfortunately, he continues, the treasure trove of information in newspaper back issues remains largely untapped, "especially by professional historians, most of whom seem to have downplayed the role of newspapers in settling the West and, as a result, shied away from studying old copies."

The common argument against heavy reliance on newspapers as primary sources is that coverage of events often was inaccurate and not objective. But as Dary points out, on-going coverage of an event is not colored by foreknowledge of how things are going to end. And contemporary letters and diaries are as subjective as opinionated reporting or sharply partisan editorials.

The trick, Dary reminds anyone who would write history, is placing things in perspective.

Dary then drops another couple of shells in his figurative scattergun and cuts loose on "a small group of academic historians who have tried to rewrite history....by accusing those who settled the West of being mercenary, thoughtless, lecherous, cruel, genocidal, heartless, and liars."

At the beginning of "Red Blood and Black Ink" Dary uses a quote from some anonymous philosopher that explains the value of both these newspaper books: "The newspaper is the historian's surest and most nearly eternal source of information. The living event is forever gone, but the newspaper is evidence that life was here."


Bookmobiles: A Forgotten Service
(June 12, 1998)

Seems like it pulled up outside our school on Fridays.

The vehicle parked on the curb near the bike racks on the west side of T. A. Brown Elementary. Its arrival not only got us out of the classroom for a while, it took us around the world and into outer space.

Remember bookmobiles?

In the late 1950s, the Austin Public Library regularly sent a bookmobile to my elementary school. Only one class at a time could go outside to the library on wheels. Even then, we had to stand on the sidewalk and wait for our turn.

The specifics of these rules are hazy to me now, four decades later. What I remember far better are some of the books I checked out. Science fiction. Historical novels. A book on submarines. Texas history. They were real books, as opposed to the books we had in our school library. Those books were for kids.

In most urban areas today, bookmobiles are long extinct, as archaic as the dairy trucks that brought fresh milk to your doorstep every morning, the television repairmen who came to your house to replace a burned out tube or the postal carrier who delivered mail twice a day. Most big city libraries, with the exception of some systems which also serve rural areas, have been out of the book mobile business for more than two decades.

The concept of a rolling library goes back to the horse-drawn wagon days, but the heyday for bookmobiles came after World War II, according to Jeanette Larson, director of the library development division at the Texas State Library. Before specially-designed bookmobiles were available, she said, converted school buses carried books to the people. One city's library even used the trunk of a car.

The State Library, with federal money, began a bookmobile program in 1958 to provide library service for rural counties. The idea was to show folks that libraries were important to their community and should be supported with local funds. Today, the bookmobiles are gone but only eight of Texas' 254 counties are without libraries.

David Earl Holt, who headed the Austin Public Library from 1967 to 1991, said the Austin library once had a fleet of six bookmobiles of varying ages. Each was staffed by a librarian and a driver-clerk and held about 1,500 books. Patrons and staff alike loved bookmobiles. They democratized library service.

From the library management standpoint, the bookmobiles had two missions: They got books to patrons who found it difficult to get to the main library or a branch and they were an assessment tool. The level of usage at a particular location helped determine the need for new branch libraries.

The reading public enjoyed the convenience of the mobile libraries. Each library-in-a-truck stocked a mixture of titles, from non-fiction to mystery novels.

"Our bookmobiles also carried magazines," Holt recalled recently. "I remember hearing about one man who always was the first on the bookmobile when it made a certain stop each week. He went straight to the Time Magazine. He had what amounted to a free subscription."

School kids who liked books but had to rely on busy parents to get them to a library enjoyed the bookmobiles, as did those who because of their physical condition or age could not drive.

But bookmobiles were a managerial challenge. Since they carried a heavy load, clutch problems were perennial. Another problem had to do with keeping the mobile libraries cool. Most vehicles are designed for air conditioning to be used when the vehicle is moving, not standing still. A bookmobile's AC frequently was on the fritz, Holt said.

What finally killed the service in most cities was the cost of the vehicles themselves.

"In four or five years, the price of the bookmobiles jumped from $45,000 to $85,000," Holt said. "We were just priced out of the business."

The escalation in bookmobile prices has continued since Holt's retirement. Today, according to Larson, a bookmobile costs $150,000 to $200,000.

During the later days of his tenure, Holt said, the money necessary for one new bookmobile would go a long way toward renting and operating a branch library in a strip shopping center. And even the smallest branch could carry 20,000 books -- more than 10 times what a bookmobile could transport. Opening a new branch library obviously was the most cost effective choice, though people would have to find their own way to get there.

By the mid-1970s, bookmobiles fast were becoming cultural relics. Today, Larson said, only 20 bookmobiles operate in 16 Texas communities. But before costs became prohibitive, bookmobiles touched a lot of lives.

Bookmobiles drove through racial barriers. Houston had 13 branch libraries in 1952, but in the then-segregated city, only one branch was open to blacks. The Harris County Library's bookmobile, however, made regular stops at the city's black schools.

In Austin, Holt said, a bookmobile meant a lot to Clifton Griffin. As a youngster, Griffin found magic in the regular visits of a library on wheels. As an adult, Griffin went to work for the Austin Public Library, his former boss recalled. Eventually Griffin became manager of the Carver branch.

Kids in the early 1950s felt so at home in the Dallas Public Library bookmobile that some showed up still wearing their pajamas. One Dallas youngster eager to find new reading material forgot to hit the brakes on his bike and crashed into a bookmobile's side, knocking himself out. When the boy came to, a 1951 newspaper article reported, he checked out a book and pedaled home. The bookmobile wasn't dented.


Ghosts of Jefferson
(June 5, 1998)

A father of a four-year-old shouldn't do what I did, but...

"Watch out for ghosts tonight," I warned Hallie, feigning seriousness as we settled in for the evening at the Excelsior House in the old riverboat town of Jefferson.

Built in the 1850s, the hotel is Texas' second oldest. And, yes, some say it's haunted.

"Daddy," Hallie lectured, "ghosts are just pretend."

"That's right, Daddy was just teasing," I said, trying to sound reassuring. But no, I thought, ghosts are real. Sure, they don't rattle chains and throw things.

But they exist in our minds as sometimes strong, sometimes flickering memories of people we once knew. They can't hurt us, but sometimes they can make us sad.

As Hallie drifted off, I thought about the ghosts of Jefferson -- the thousands of people I never knew and the few I had known. Most of the people who ever lived here are dead. Once a bustling river town, it was Texas' sixth largest city. Today, only a couple of thousand folks call it home.

This was only my second visit to Jefferson as an adult, though as a youngster I had been there several times with my granddad. We were friends of Roy and Kay Butler, a couple who played a big part in Jefferson's development as a tourist town. But they are gone, as is Granddad. Now, completing the circle, I was introducing my daughter to this historic town where her family's roots go deeper than a moss-draped cypress.

"I discovered Jefferson several years ago," my granddad wrote for Texas Parade Magazine (now also a ghost) in 1964, "but I continue to go back ... seeking to separate that which is legend from that which is history. You can't find out in one trip or describe in a few pages all the events of a century."

Now Jefferson's history goes back much farther than a century, and the space problem from a writer's standpoint is even more acute. Good stories here are as common as mayhaw berries in spring.

Maybe, aside from stories needing telling, Granddad was drawn to this corner of Texas, only 15 miles from Louisiana, because of his own ghost. He knew that he, through his mother -- my great-grandmother -- was related to Robert Potter, one-time Secretary of the Navy for the Republic of Texas and for all time a murder victim.

Caught up in an ugly feud, Potter was accosted by enemies near his home on Caddo Lake in 1842 and shot to death as he tried to swim away.

Though the history of Jefferson has as many twists and turns as Big Cypress Bayou, which passes through the community before emptying into Caddo Lake, the best brief overview is a booklet by Fred Tarpley, "Jefferson: East Texas Metropolis." Published by the East Texas Historical Association, the 54-page booklet sells for $5.

After the Civil War, Jefferson had a rougher time than most Texas cities adjusting to Reconstruction. The military, which from the perspective of the locals amounted to an occupying force, could not suppress violence. Captain William Perry, the town's founder, was shot down in a murder that remains unsolved. In an unrelated incident, another man was taken from the jail and lynched, though the informal vigilance committee didn't bother to hang him. They just shot him 18 times.

These reconstruction troubles are covered in "Johnny Reb and the Carpetbaggers: The Second Rebellion" by Jim McMillen. The 16-page booklet sells for $3.95 and is available from McMillen (PO Box 569, Jefferson, TX, 76557).

One of the major players in the post-Civil War trauma in and around Jefferson was Cullen Montgomery Baker, who, depending on the telling of the story, either was an East Texas Robin Hood or a psychopathic killer.

Baker's great-grandson, Robert W. Teel of Huntsville, Alabama, has written and published a book on his infamous forebear called "Cullen Montgomery Baker: Champion of the Lost Cause." The 113-page hardback sells for $12.

This is by no means a definitive study of Baker. Coming from a descendant of the outlaw, it leans more to the Robin Hood perspective than the psychopathic view, but it is interesting to read.

Long before people of Anglo or African heritage came to Jefferson, it was the home of the Caddo Indians.

The Marion County Historical Commission has published a readable, informative book on these early residents of East Texas by Mildred S. Gleason, "Caddo: A Survey of Caddo Indians in Northeast Texas and Marion County, 1541-1840." The 99-page hardcover is available at the Marion County Museum in Jefferson for $11.95.

The story of the Caddo is told in much more detail in "The Caddo Nation: Archaeological and Ethnohistoric Perspective" by Timothy K. Perttula. First published by the University of Texas Press in 1992, the book went out of print fairly quickly. Now it's back as a paperback, with a new preface offering updated information not available for the first edition.

Perttula's book is the definitive work on the Caddo, but it is a scholarly treatment intended for the specialist rather than the general reader.

The Caddo, too, had their mind ghosts. They buried their dead with food, clothing and weapons to sustain them on what they believed was the soul's journey to the House of Death, where it would be united with dead relatives.

The morning after my night of reflection at the Excelsior House, I had a fine time acquainting Hallie and her mom with Jefferson. I didn't bring up ghosts again as we toured the old town. Maybe when Hal's older, I'll try to explain to her that ghosts are not always just pretend.


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