According to the old spiritual, all God’s children got shoes. And when they get to heaven, they’re gonna put on their shoes and they’re gonna walk all over God’s heaven.
Variously shod, the characters in Aaron Gwyn’s eventful third novel walk all over Texas. In 1827, when Gwyn begins All God’s Children, Duncan Lammons, fleeing an oppressively Methodist father in Kentucky, imagines Texas to be “a free frontier, promising folks like me the chance to start fresh.” For Cecelia, a teenage slave favored by a doting mistress who teaches her to read, failed escapes lead to repeated stints on an auction block and increasingly brutal treatment. Eventually acquired by a chivalrous, mysterious stranger who treats her as an equal, she, too, ends up in Texas, where, for the first time, she feels free. Until she doesn’t.
Early on, Duncan wanders into a colony in east Texas where lazy white people live off the involuntary labor of Black people and realizes that Texas is “a heaven for white men, but a hell for blacks and women.” He will learn it can be hell for white men as well. Nevertheless, Duncan enlists in the cause of Texas independence, which means fighting against a nation that abolished slavery, Mexico, on behalf of a republic that will sanction it.
The novel crosscuts between the converging stories of Duncan, who ends up an active participant in the Texas Revolution, the Mexican War, and skirmishes with the Comanche, and Cecelia, who teams with Sam Fisk to start a homestead and family in Bastrop County. Illiterate and white, Sam is an odd but devoted protector of bookish Cecelia.
Duncan tells his own story, retrospectively, from the vantage point of 1861, after Texas has joined and then left the Union – both actions he deplores. His account is vivid with details of how to light a fire with a spindle and fireboard and the distinctions among a flintlock rifle, a longbore, and a five-shot Colt revolver. It is peppered with pungent period terms. He tells us that he went “pirooting” through the streets of New Orleans, that a woman’s song leaves him with “a dauncy feeling,” and that his abolitionist father “auspicated” disaster if human bondage persisted.
Acknowledging that “I felt nothing for women but a mechanical curiosity,” Duncan applies the term “nancy” to describe himself. Part of the freedom he seeks in Texas is sexual, but, despite crushes on a few of his comrades in arms, he never reveals his erotic preferences to anyone but the reader. His rivalry with Cecelia for the affections of Sam – a fellow Ranger he admires as “more wild than brave, ignorant of fear and courage both, like a perfect beast” – drives much of the plot.
Unlike Duncan, Cecelia does not get to tell her own story. Though she is the focus of half the book’s sections, they are presented in the third person. It as if, wary of the Cultural Appropriation Police, Gwyn does not dare simulate the voice of a Black Texan woman. Cecelia, who models herself after the wily Odysseus she read about in Virginia, is a fascinating figure and might have been even more remarkable if allowed to speak for herself.
As historical fiction, All God’s Children seems obliged to provide cameo appearances by familiar personages such as Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, and William Jenkins Worth. Duncan and his band of irregulars are on their way to Bexar when a courier informs them of the massacre at the Alamo. But Gwyn is also capable of inventing vibrant minor characters, including a flamboyant Spaniard with a fondness for Wordsworth who, abducted by Barbary pirates and forced into slavery, eventually makes his way to Texas.
Not even Texas is big enough to contain Duncan and Cecelia, who are last seen in Kansas. “I did not think it was the Creator’s intention for men to be tied to one place,” writes Duncan, a hunter-gatherer who takes to warfare as “a kind of hunting” and asks: “Wasn’t agriculture itself a wicked practice?” A lonely, isolated figure as the open land fills up with farms, Duncan can only wander and wonder whether it is ever possible to be genuinely free.
All God’s Children
By Aaron Gwyn
Published October 20, 2020