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  • Authentic Texas: People of the Big Bend by Marcia Hatfield Daudistel and Bill Wright
  • Paul Christensen
Authentic Texas: People of the Big Bend. By Marcia Hatfield Daudistel and Bill Wright. Photographs by Bill Wright. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. xi + 256 pp. Photos. $24.95 paper.

I’m not sure why the title of this interesting book, Authentic Texas, should use the word “authentic.” Does life in the desert terrain around Big Bend imply there is something more legitimate or rooted than life elsewhere in this sprawling state of mountains, grassland, swamps, and rolling prairies? It’s an old argument that the real Texas is rural, mostly prairie and desert, far from the hubs of commerce and technology, where national culture takes over. The authors, Marcia Hatfield Daudistel and Bill Wright, use the phrase “Texas exceptionalism” to suggest that life in Texas in general is different from every other American place; even so, life around the lava beds and tufa mounds, the wild, twisted arroyos and bitter alkaline earth of Marathon, Presidio, Valentine, and Limpia Crossing, are the core of what makes Texas, well, Texas.

Both writers spent several years traveling the region asking people questions about their lives. The writers stay neutral in their comments on each interview. Everyone had something bad to say about big cities, noise, traffic, pollution. The absence of a Wal-Mart within 150 miles of their towns made people more self-reliant, some said. Piped-in water and gas, electricity, and the Internet were missing in the remotest settlements, and only beginning to change life in towns like Alpine and Marfa. Terlingua and Study Butte are at the other end of this continuum, a place of loners and off-grid dwellers who make do with little and prefer it that way. For most, community is all-important; knowing your neighbors replaces the anonymity of the city. Mutual aid in times of trouble is the virtue of a precarious life.

To many, the desire to touch original nature in the United States goes back to Thoreau’s two-year stay on Walden Pond, and since then includes many wanderers and visionaries wanting to connect with primordial life. Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire found his piece of original nature in what is now Arches National Park, where he reenacted Thoreau’s experiment. He, like the people in this book, discovered a hidden benevolence in hostile terrain. The thorny juniper bush became his symbol of an enduring life force amid aridity and deprivation.

One way to read this book is as a critique of consumerism and overindulgence in our time. The constant refrain that there’s no Wal-Mart around points to a disillusionment with instant gratification, but the thinking stops short of indicting mainstream culture for overstuffing its citizens and leaving no room for introspection. Out there in the dry heat and scorching sand, one finds relief from these pressures, and that is what nearly everyone here says is the reason they stay on. [End Page 124]

Paul Christensen
Department of English
Texas A&M University


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