The versatile landscapes of Stephen Harrigan's prose

March 10, 2015 at 3:54 p.m.

Saba Razvi

Saba Razvi   Contributed Photo for The Victoria Advocate

In a state as vast as Texas, with a nuanced and rich history, and an identity that often borrows from the legendary and the larger than life zeal of folklore, there is no shortage of epic stories or epic characters. So, writing a story that brings the larger than life to life is a difficult task, one that Stephen Harrigan has managed to do many times over.

In his novels, books of nonfiction and essays, Harrigan has not only managed to captivate the attention of his many readers, but he has also given them stories worth holding on to. According to the Library Journal, Harrigan's prose "expresses an indefinable nostalgia for the magic of the past as well as the realities of the present, arriving at unforgettable depictions of place and character."

That is no small feat, when the nostalgia and the historical characterization cover as big a place as, well, Texas. It makes perfect sense, given his expertise in the lore of the region and its people, to discover that he has written screen-plays for films that capture the quintessential geographical spirit of the state such as "Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder," "King of Texas," and "The Colt."

These films, made for TV, have brought the nostalgic past and the sweeping landscape into the homes of many viewers who looked through it to find characters that exemplify true grit and perseverance, as Harrigan's characters have been known to do. And, yet, Harrigan chooses to bring forth not just the big stories, not just the boldest moments, but also those that highlight human vulnerability, the kind of spirit that makes the fight for any ideal worth the while.

Publishers Weekly recognizes this delicate touch in its review of his work, praising it by reminding us that "writing in a state known for its enormity, Harrigan is on the side of small men who often die victims of a history that too quickly forgets." By bringing us the tales of characters like Lucy Kincheloe and Mary Mott, Walt Womack and Edmund McGowan, Harrigan gives them soulful and meaningful life and a place in memorable history, in the history of a place that is often imagined as invulnerably larger than life.

In addition to invoking the grand landscapes and legends of the region, Harrigan also manages to write characters in ways that defy our expectations. In its review of his novel "Challenger Park," the New York Times revels in the author's ability to take what sounds like an epically mundane concept and breathe new life and perspective into it, declaring that a tale about the ordinary and routine "daily lives of astronauts" is "a fine, absorbing achievement, probably the best science-factual novel about the space-faring worlds of Houston and Cape Canaveral in the nearly half-century since the first astronauts were chosen."

His protagonist happens to be a woman, rising out of the drag of domestic oppression into a literal out-of-this-world opportunity - and he invites us into her experiences through lyrical prose that wrestles with the strength of emotional intimacy and steadfast ambition. It is the psychological struggle that keeps us invested and engaged, suspended in a tale about space travel, a topic that those tethered to the earth and its gravity might otherwise find distant, aloof, or unrelatable.

Harrigan has also been praised for his fine works of historical fiction, such as "The Gates of the Alamo," which features fictional figures such as a former mayor of San Antonio named Terrell Mott and a wandering botanist named Edmund McGowan, alongside such daunting figures as Santa Anna, Sam Houston, and Davy Crockett. By bringing into sharper focus the figures of our legends against the actions of a few fictional characters, Harrigan makes new the most famous of Texas stories, that of the Alamo.

For his accomplishments, Harrigan was recently inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. He is a faculty fellow at the University of Texas's Michener Center for Writers in Austin. He will speak at noon Thursday in the UHV Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St., for the UHV/American Book Review Reading Series, where his reading is sure to delight readers from throughout the Crossroads.

Saba Razvi is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Houston-Victoria. She can be reached at razvis@uhv.edu.


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