Philipp Meyer’s sweeping American epic, ‘The Son’, covers over one hundred years of family history – taking us on a journey from the wild frontiers of Texas to the turn of the twenty-first century.
As a young boy living on the frontier, Eli McCollough sees his family murdered in front of him and is taken captive by the local Comanche tribe. Against the odds, he thrives, becoming like an adopted son to the chief. He learns to live off the land, working hard and learning the value of everything. When his tribe is decimated, he has no choice but to return to the more civilised life of the white men, but struggles to fit in and rails against society. Having nothing at all to his name, Eli joins the Texas Rangers – a brutal and dangerous life. In the aftermath of the civil war, Eli takes the opportunity to carve out his fortune. He forges an empire that will last for years to come by milking everything that the land can offer, and by acting brutally and swiftly against anyone that might hinder his progress.
His son, Peter, is intrinsically aware that he and his father are cut from different cloths. Peter sees first-hand how the McCollough’s profit from the misfortune of others. He struggles to come to terms with the imbalance of power and wealth in his hometown. In an atmosphere that’s highly charged with racial tensions, others around him need only the slightest excuse to react with violence and claim with force what does not belong to them. Peter’s attempts to avoid this violence, his reluctance to take advantage of others and his decision to follow his heart and his own sense of justice over his fortune and inherited position cause an irreparable rift between him and his family.
Eli’s great granddaughter, Jeannie, inherits his work ethic, but in the male dominated world of oil she struggles to assert her voice. Throughout her life, she constantly attempts to balance the way that her male peers see her with her own happiness. It’s also Jeannie that sees most clearly the long term effects of being a McCollough heir. Her children, raised in a world of wealth and privilege, battle their own demons and have little interest in the business or the family’s past. As a result, her relationships with them are constantly strained. They are of a different age and a different generation. The effect is like a lost connection, a constant struggle to communicate and connect.
The overriding message throughout the book is that the actions of the father, and his father before that, will have an irrevocable effect on the lives of their descendants. Nowhere is this more evident than in the changing Texan landscape. In Eli’s childhood, Texas is a lush, fertile land with rivers and prairies of waist high grass. Over the course of the next century, this landscape is decimated. As men attempt to tame the land, to claim it and bend it to their will, the rivers disappear and the ground dries out and cracks. As the frontiers expand, the tribes of Native Americans are forced to retreat further, their hunting grounds grow ever smaller and their numbers are wiped out by disease and by advancing technology.
Over the years, the way that the McCullough family members think of the land changes entirely – from using all of its resources survive, to mining it for all of its resources in order to profit, and eventually, as with Jeannie’s children, to abandoning it altogether.
The contrasts and conflicts between parent and child from the essence of this book. The family structure is binding – it gives its members strength but also it’s also destructive, limiting their opportunities to take their own path as individuals. Indeed, as both Peter and later his great nephew Jonas find out, it’s only by threatening the financial safety of the family fortune that they can break free from its obligations.
Overall, ‘The Son’ is raw and gritty, tough and brutally honest. Actions and decisions reverberate through generations, driving to an inevitable and damning conclusion.
The sense of realism that Meyer infuses into his writing is fantastic. Each character is perfectly crafted, and the author lets their decisions stand – while we as readers are encouraged to draw our own conclusions. It’s not a light book by any means – each section is infused with subtext and deeper meanings – but in my opinion it’s none the less enjoyable for it. You might also want to keep a bookmark in the page with the family tree, as the constant shifts in time can get confusing!
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