Book Review: Come and Take It

Come and Take It: Search for the Treasure of the Alamo

by Landon Wallace

Having recalled the Alamo from history lessons and visited once during a short stay in San Antonio, I was intrigued by the idea of Alamo historical fiction, since I haven’t seen much of the topic in this genre. I admit I was a little apprehensive, given my greater familiarity with Revolutionary battles and locations than Texas history, but decided to let my distant “connection” and a trial lawyer storyteller lead the way. In the end, the gamble led to a clear win.

ComeAndTakeItBookCover
Click image for further info

Opening with the robbery and murder of a World War II hero and descendant of an Alamo leader’s slave, Landon Wallace’s Come and Take It shifts from the veteran Joe Travis’s point of view to that of his grandson, tasked with sorting his late grandfather’s affairs. Nat has an abrasive relationship with his brother, Joseph, though the two manage to keep it together enough to advance in brief stages. Joseph is a rising star in the political scene, a status Nat neither understands nor appreciates, and Wallace’s skillful treatment of their exchanges not only bestows a sense of realism, but also avoids the “bad brother/good brother” stereotype. Joseph, too, loved Papa Joe, and in fairness his physical distance from his brother interferes in allowing him to see, as Nat does, events as they play out.

As the novel progresses, new characters are introduced by way of their own points of view opening various scenes—a perilous undertaking if done too loosely, though equally iffy when an author doesn’t allow characters to take enough control of their own roles. The balance Wallace displays results in characters who actually live and breathe on the pages of this book, and even the extreme personality of Angelina, Daughters of the Republic of Texas member and treasure seeker, has its roots in being a lifelong recipient of Texas lore, ancestors revered and a 175-year-old myth. Combined with her addictive personality, readers can see why she allows herself to be swept away, even if they don’t agree:

But even if reason told her different, Angelina couldn’t let go, her whole being so wrapped into the prize that she couldn’t give up. She knew that the treasure hunt had become a narcotic, as powerful an obsession as a junkie’s addiction, but it didn’t matter.

Wallace also weaves an unlikely romance between small-town coach Nat and his former sister-in-law, Renee, a history professor on sabbatical, with expertise in unraveling the knotted threads of history and asking the right questions in order to gauge what they should be looking for. Renee also happens to be quite personable and lovely, so it seems almost a matter of course they should be drawn together, though the pair resist and are driven apart by opposing perceptions in how to proceed.

Whether teaming up harmoniously or being wedged apart, Nat and Renee also present as characters one can believe in, and grow to care about as they progress from initial discovery to coming to understand what readers knew before them:

“Nat, hi,” Renee said [into the phone] while looking over at her mother, who raised her eyebrows and grinned. “We had a great time but we’re glad to be home.” She shrugged toward her mother, as if to ward off her suggestive look. “How’s the research going?”

 “That’s why I’m calling. I had a breakthrough while you were gone.”

“Really?” Renee countered.

 “It all started with a prompt from Joseph.”

 “Joseph?”

“Yeah, I think you know the guy.” Nat chuckled. “Listen to this. He hired a private investigator to look into Papa Joe’s death and never told me about it.”

 “Are you surprised?” Renee asked, taking a seat.

 “No, I guess not. At first I was hot … I figured he’d hired the guy just to look into me, but I got over it. But then I did find something totally unexpected.”

 “You have my attention.”

 “Joseph’s guy reviewed phone records. It appears Papa Joe’s research into our family tree had a far different purpose than we thought. My grandfather was looking for something much more specific than our genealogy. Something you and I never imagined.”

More than expertly handling the introduction and re-appearance of various characters, Wallace is an exemplary guide who leads readers through a labyrinth of personal experiences—those of modern-day characters as well as historical figures such as the legendary Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and William Travis—that fit like pieces of the puzzle Nat has to assemble in order to learn what his grandfather was up to.

Battle of the Alamo--click for further information
Battle of the Alamo–click for further information

From the beginning readers are a half-step ahead of Nat, beginning with Papa Joe’s defiant, dying words to the robbers seeking very specific information about Bowie’s treasure: “’Come and take it,’ he [had] gasped.” We witness him denying the invaders what they want, and though we as readers know more than Nat does for much of the book, owing to Wallace’s omniscient narrator format, it is a limited omniscience, and Nat comes out with a surprise or two up his own sleeve.

Owing to my unfamiliarity with much of the legend, I looked up many pieces of the historical information and found Wallace’s research and presentation to be spot on. He has woven a yarn worthy of its characters and historical background, and the manner in which he progresses, allowing us bits of information at a time via such discordant personalities is unique and genius—not to mention pulled off in a manner that can only be described as no less than consummate.

The only thing I had a hard time doing with Come and Take It was putting it down. The weaving together of so many differences, of two eras so far apart, an unfamiliar (to me) piece of my country’s history and myself—all this and more kept me turning pages because I simply had to know what happened next, including the tumultuous ending to all of this that Nat and Renee find themselves facing.

Even for those well-versed in Alamo and Texas history, this is a must read—for the flashbacks, the fleshed-out characters, the sure thing or the doubts even the “bad guys” have. This is history, mystery, politics, romance, genealogy, the re-visiting of legendary figures and those who grow up with these myths by their sides. Wallace presents the various effects this can have on those touched by all this and, in the process, touches us as we watch their struggles and victories, and once more are taken back to a piece of history that we never really left.

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Click for further information
Click for further information

Landon Wallace is a native Texan and trial attorney who can tell a story both in and out of the courtroom. He lives in North Texas with his wife and family. Come and Take It is his second novel.

You can learn more about Wallace and his books at his websiteTwitter and the author’s Facebook page. Come and Take It is available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The reviewer received a free copy of Come and Take It in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell

Today, October 4, 2015, marks 109 years since the birth of Mr. Norman Campbell, who passed away in 2012.

The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell

by Norman Campbell/compiled by Diana Jackson

25% of proceeds from the sales of this book are donated to the local Kingston on Thames branch of Age Concern and Cancer, UK, Mr. Campbell’s chosen charity

I have a gcampbell book coverreat love for the ordinary, perhaps largely because so often it translates across history or events as extraordinary, rendering otherwise lesser details worthy of great note. Objects become artifacts, experiences awe, and so often people in later eras feel some link to those of times past; connections bond them despite the enormous differences of their environments that they may nevertheless both relate to so closely.

So it occurs within The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell, in which we the readers are given a firsthand glimpse into life in the earliest years of the 20th century, on through to the end of that era and into the 21st. Narrated by Campbell in a conversational style, the commentary seems to be directed at readers, and parenthetical laughter occasionally pops up, as it would when people are sitting together remembering.

young norman
Young Norman

Campbell starts with his parents’ marriage, followed by his birth in 1909, then continues on in linear fashion, through two world wars, his adventures to and in Australia, the advent of radio and television, his passion for music and perhaps surprisingly, his interest in surfing the Internet.

His words, so like the spoken words they actually are as recorded by Diana Jackson, revive for us memories of memories, perhaps stories heard from relatives about an era in which ordinary goals are reached by exhausting and extraordinary means. They then transition us with great succinctness to the present. Campbell does this with the fluidity of a born historian who in just a few sweeping words provides a glimpse of something that was and how it became something else.

Under the stairs was the coal cellar in those days. You could still find coal dust down there today but I’ve put a bit of carpet over it now. The coal man used to come in here with the coal on his back and that’s where he used to shoot the coal. All the dust would fly up in the hall. Schewww! You can imagine.

Most people have taken this cupboard out to give more room and maybe have a telephone or something under the stairs. I have filled in the banisters though, and put in a false ceiling because it was far too high up to paper.

Illustrated throughout, the pictures take on a new dimension of fascinating when we recall a passage from the acknowledgements:

This book, Norman’s memoirs, is also illustrated by photos and pictures from his multitude of albums and scrap books, squirreled away over more than a century.

For most people scrap books initiated 100 years prior, even if they ran for only a few seasons and indeed are exhilarating to take in, typically come from an older relative or, in some exciting instances, are discovered in attics or lofts. That these were held in reserve and collected for so long (100 years!) and by the same person, is nothing short of stunning.

sunlight soap labelExamination of the pictures reveals our own past, in people, places or items recognizable or not, and one finds their breath at times drawn in to realize the forebears of some of what we know today. This isn’t just about seeing a quaint-looking label on, say, laundry soap, though that is charming as well, but also to reflect about the conditions under which these products came to be or operated. Sunlight soap, for example, was created in 1884 using palm oils as opposed to the heretofore utilized tallow seen in depictions of early sculleries in which the maid’s hand would dip into a jar, emerging with a palm full of goop used for washing up. Sunlight was manufactured into a bar for the sake of convenience and the product came with a £1,000 guarantee.

Interestingly, such advert artifacts appear only at the start of the autobiography in close proximity to family photos. In fact, the Sunlight ad is the first image not of a family member, and subsequent clippings—one for linoleum, the next from an outraged citizen offering to pay £100 to anyone who can prove true the rumor about his consumption of horse meat—given Campbell’s age (toddler) at the time they are dated, points to a collection, perhaps of his mother, that inspired his own continuity of the habit.

spencer and annie campbell
Spencer and Annie Campbell

Did Annie Campbell have a sense of history that she perhaps passed on to her son, encouraging him by word or deed to preserve his present for the future? While it may seem an extravagant or extraneous question, its exploration makes other inquiries, of the Campbells as well as ourselves. How many of us today clip and retain product adverts? Do many people now see these even as worthy of retention? While the labels were mass produced in Annie Campbell’s day, now they are produced in mind-boggling numbers, awareness of which perhaps makes them truly unspecial in the eyes of many today. Annie Campbell, perhaps aware of the import of the product’s ingredient transition and maybe with a keen sense of the changes occurring in her world, might have kept them for others. “She was a bit of a clairvoyant. She used to dream of the future,” Campbell says, “and tell fortunes with the cards and tea leaves[.]” Perhaps she looked to the future and wondered what we might make of the people of her time, and wished to provide some answers. If so, she must have known there are clues sprinkled throughout her artifacts.

In addition to this glimpse into perspective, we see notation for images in a font resembling handwriting, much like people did when they pasted photos into the black pages of the old-time albums. When we see, then, the placement of some images at angles, rather than always straight and flush with the same sides of the pages, it brings the realization that the entire autobiography is itself the album. Campbell has not only invited us into his world, but also his time, and over the course of his lifetime has gone to great lengths to ensure we get an extended view. The chapters being headed by the years and a title facilitate the album presentation as it allows readers to peruse from beginning to end or to flip through, much the same way we flip through an album, skipping, going backwards for a second look, comparing the people within at the end to how they appeared—or what they did—at the start.

Surrey Comet, 1953

Compiled by Diana Jackson following Campbell’s death, the inclusion of an occasional address to Jackson herself does not take away from this album being meant for others to share in, and in fact shows a greater depth to Campbell’s invitation for us to participate in his life’s experiences, for indeed he must have realized the connection between readers and himself simply by knowing even portions of what he knew, such as television: Most have seen it, and he reaches out to add to our awareness of the space it occupies in our lives. When television is developed in 1953, and Campbell witnesses on one the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (current Queen Elizabeth II) he sees himself as a pioneer, and later contemplates a purchase.

I thought about it and since I was spending so much in the Kinema and so much in the Elite and so much in the Empire, I thought that all of it could go to pay for the television instead and then we didn’t have to go out.

We’d have all our entertainment indoors; magic. But that was the worst thing that could ever happen. All our social life went. I’ve never been out to the pictures since. The other thing is that everyone is scruffy these days. No one ever dresses up anymore. And then many of the picture houses were turned into Bingo halls when television took over.

As it turns out, Campbell’s wary observations were very keen indeed, for like the labels that are nowadays cast off as ordinary and of little importance for the eyes of the future, activities that once were central functions in people’s lives also transitioned into the ordinary. The processes that got people to those events–saving money, planning for, dressing up—were eliminated as something that once was magical sunk into the insignificant.

In this sense Campbell’s compilation might also serve as a cautionary tale as well as a memorabilia that enables us to cherish our own forebears. In displaying to us the charm of the ordinary, he also discreetly advises us—in his way of saying much with so few words—of the danger of the reverse, of becoming nonchalant in the face of the remarkable. It is here we see that he, too, might have been “a bit of a clairvoyant,” drawing from his mother more than he—at least on the surface—lets on, and presents to us this brilliant autobiography that could be read on a number of levels.

This amazing man continues his story, with clarity and dignity even explaining the pattern of his days with carers, not just for physical assistance but also to help him bear the loneliness around him. At 102 years of age, those from his generation are gone, he is widowed and, living in the home he grew up in, is surrounded by their memories. He finds joy in the Internet and reaches out to his extended family who live, literally, all over the globe. His story is written in a simple manner, but it is by no means simplistic and, as mentioned earlier, he presents it to us with many layers to peel back and discover that beneath it all is great complexity, which is, as Campbell himself might say, “as simple as that!”

To the end, Campbell displays that bright spark, a telling humor that makes us want to dig deeper to understand what else it is he knows, what is he trying to tell us, or even just share with us. Diana Jackson:

I saw Norman in hospital three days before he passed away and he said[,] ‘I’ve got it Diana! The name of my book. The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell!’

‘You can’t call it that,’ I spluttered. ‘You’re still with us.’

Indeed he is.

same house

Norman at 102 years of age He passed away just two months later
Norman at 102 years of age
He passed away just two months later

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(All images from The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell.)

Thank you to Mr. Norman Campbell, for sharing your remarkable life with us!

For more from Diana Jackson, see her blog, where you can also read more about Mr. Norman Campbell.

To purchase this fantastic book, please go to Amazon or Amazon UK.

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This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location

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