Allen Wier’s fourth novel, Tehano (Southern Methodist University Press, 716 pp., $27.50), is as large and complicated as the American landscape through which its characters ride. Featuring two sets of twins, escaped slaves, Comanche warriors, the American Civil War, wagons of settlers and an itinerant, self-educated undertaker named Gideon, the story leapfrogs through the mid-19th century into the heart of deepest, darkest Texas.
Although the word Tehano originally meant a Texan of Mexican descent, the Comanche weren’t too interested in the ethnicity of those invading their homeland. They called all outsiders Tehanos, and Wier’s novel follows that usage, so his cast of characters is large and diverse. There are twin white brothers from New York, one on each side of the fratricidal Civil War, which leaves one searching the South for the other. There is an escaped slave and his lover slogging through the treacherous marshlands of the Gulf Coast to equally dangerous wartime Galveston. Representing the natives, separated-at-birth Comanche twin boys blindly follow divergent paths toward collision on the High Plains.
Holding the story together is the undertaker Gideon, an orphan searching for love and understanding from the seat of his wagon: “His first day in the true wilderness, miles beyond the protection of civilization, Gideon Jones passed hour after hour traversing a wide undulating ocean of prairie where nothing altered his view.” But though the view is barren, much happens on that grass sea—most of it deadly.
Wier, a teacher of writing at UT Knoxville, is originally from Texas and clearly loves the people and history of large spaces. Tehano is the kind of story that will shroud the reader in the dust and struggle that was the Old West. Wier will read at 8 p.m. March 18 at Austin Peay’s Gentry Auditorium.