Book: THE SON by Philipp Meyer

” an incredible historical fiction … a full-belly satisfying feast”

A sprawling family saga spanning the 1840s to 2012, The Son is an incredible historical fiction account ranging from the Comanche raids of the nineteenth century in Texas to the state’s continued thirst for oil up until present day.  I don’t know if this is considered a western (as I’ve never read one and don’t particularly gravitate toward them), but I don’t think it matters because, in many ways, this story defies genres.

THE SON by Philipp Meyer
THE SON by Philipp Meyer

The language is beautiful and complex (and, on occasion, onerous) – but worth it. I love a book in which I am challenged to seek definitions for words I’ve never before encountered. This is that kind of book: filled with those tasty morsels. It’s not a light read, but a full-belly satisfying feast.

Yet it’s even more than that. What I came away with, personally, through the alternative chapter narratives of Col. Eli McCullough, his son Peter McCullough and his great-granddaughter Jeannie McCullough is a case study of man’s historical thirst for conquest – over land, over other men, over women, over fate. Man’s cruelty and desire to take what isn’t his seems to be ingrained and is just ‘human nature.’ And yet I found it so bothersome, the lack of regard for human life back in the 1800s.

This novel really brought to the forefront the vast number of Native American tribes annihilated in North America … and while I knew this already (and suffer my own white European guilt – probably more so now, having read this book), I was horrified by page after page of tribe names I’d never before knew existed.

A week after reading, I keep thinking, “We don’t belong here; this isn’t our land,” (I’ve always known this intellectually, but the point has been called to my attention with sharper focus, despite Meyer illustrating again and again that this displacement and overtaking of territories, of countries, was also a practice enforced BY Native Americans against other tribes). It’s a practice that continues across the globe today. It is as constant as the air we breathe.

This ‘displacement’ theme is obviously not the only one in the book. This is a story about man’s ambition – and what happens when it becomes too big. It’s about that ambition seeping into new generations, that ambition being rejected by other generations, and the danger of ambition fading away when the riches from past generations are so abundant that future generations fail to understand the value of hard work.

As despicably as some of these characters may act, you’ll find yourself sickened and enlightened to see traces of yourself – the drive, that hunger to compete, to be the best, to “have,” to want more for your own children so that they never want. But at what cost? I was personally drawn to a few of the characters more than others – for their attachments and draw to the natural world – but equally repulsed by other traits and actions they exhibited. This is the mark of brilliance in writing: creating realistic, flawed characters. What’s more, Meyer managed to paint both sides of the oil-greed story so that, at times, you actually empathized with the wealthy Jeannie despite her heartless actions and understood how Eli moved his family into this lucrative business.

This is a book I will be thinking about for years. Literally years. There are so many discussion points and takeaways, I believe this would be a fantastic book club read, despite the book’s heft.

My only qualms, if they can be deemed such, are that some of the Eli chapters read as historical info dumps, rather than as narrative being shared by characters (even though I loved the content of the history lessons). And, due to the sheer length of the book (561 pages), I admit there were just a handful of areas in the middle where my attention wandered briefly. But I am so grateful I continued, because this is an epic tale worth the fuss and accolades that have been showered upon this book.

This story is not chronological and includes alternating chapters with three different points of view. Even so, I was so compelled by the stories, the themes, the exquisite writing, and the metaphors that I barely noticed the shifts. It’s worth noting, also, that I am astounded by the amount of research that must have gone into this book. Astounded.

If you love literary fiction, don’t mind a long read, and enjoy history – THE SON by Philipp Meyer is a fabulous pick. It’s among one of my all-time favorites.

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4 Replies to “Book: THE SON by Philipp Meyer”

  1. Happy to see someone who enjoys history, literary fiction and a long read. That used to be Michener territory and I loved his books.

    1. Then I guess I need to pick up some Michener books! Thanks for stopping by, Jean.

    2. Jean, I immediately thought of Michener also. Didn’t one of his books (Hawaii?) go all the way back to the dinosaurs? My favorite of his is The Drifters, about the 60’s.

  2. Melissa, I’m so looking forward to reading this. I’m particularly intrigued by the “displacement” theme and your reaction. I too feel the pinch of our proud conquering heritage. And wonder when we will stop feeling that the ends justify the means…

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