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The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan

As you will guess from the title, The Gates of the Alamo is about the famous siege of the Alamo in 1836. There have been numerous books and a couple of movies dedicated to this pivotal moment in US and Mexican history and the event is ingrained in the popular consciousness of most Americans. Most people will be familiar with the event itself, but many may not know much about the events leading up to the siege or the aftermath. This major piece of historical fiction focuses on all of this, and the siege itself, in a way that truly brings the time, the situation and the people alive.

Harrigan’s approach is to tell the story mainly through the eyes of three viewpoint characters: Edmund McGowan, a naturalist whose work is threatened by the encroaching war, Mary Mott, a widowed innkeeper, and her son Terrell. We learn of the history of the area, where the Mexican government was happy to give the land over to immigrants from Ireland and Germany because of its arid and unworkable nature, and the growing concerns of the Mexicans at the increasing numbers of Americans settling in the region. We get a brilliantly illustrated sense of place and the growing tensions as various players, including all the historical personalities, move into place for an impending showdown. All of this is shown to us through the actions, thoughts and dialogue of the main characters and assumes an immediacy that drags the reader right into the heart of the story.

What adds to the epic quality of the storytelling is the introduction of a Mexican viewpoint character in the shape of Telesforo Villasenor, a cartographer with the Mexican Army. Through him we are treated to a Mexican view of the proceedings as the army mobilises and travels an appalling distance, mostly on foot, to the Alamo in order to quell what they see as an uprising. There are genuine fears that the region will attempt a fight for independence or, worse, be annexed to the United States. The chapter recounting the army’s journey north is astonishing in its descriptive power, with the hardships the soldiers endure a real surprise to anyone acquainted with just the classic version of events.

The Gates of the Alamo is another book that joins my Top 10 and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan (Penguin Books, pb, 592pp, €10.64)

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