The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family's Search for the American Dream
February 06, 2018
Bryan Mealer has written a family history that also serves as a social history of Texas and the industries that have shaped the state.
People often ask us what we're looking for in a book, what gets our attention, and the answer is simple: great writing. Bryan Mealer, whose books include The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (written with William Kamkwamba) and Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town, never fails to deliver on that most important ingredient. His new book, The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family's Search for the American Dream, turns the focus on his own family, so it is most easily classified as a biography or memoir. But it is also a social history of the American South, specifically of Texas, and the boom and bust cycles of the industries that have shaped that state's history, politics, and the everyday lives of people. It begins with the story of his great grandfather leaving the hollows of Georgia as lawmen went to war on illegal stills and those who operated them, and the work of supplying moonshiners with raw materials dried up along with the whiskey they distilled. And so, John Lewis Mealer joined a great wave moving west to Texas in search of open land and opportunity.
Nearly a century had passed since we'd struck west from Appalachia to settle the raw country, in a time when America was still young. Like others around us, we were eager to put down roots and start something better, to help build this nation during its greatest century. We planted its cotton and drilled for oil, left our mothers and wives to fight its wars. We prayed for peace and rain and thanked God when the streets filled with trucks and men and a sour smell on the wind promised meat on the table. And when our sons didn't come home we endured it. When the oil and cotton went away we moved and started again. Only in Texas was there enough room for so many second acts.
His family history, wrapped up in the history of moonshine, cotton, and oil, is so quintessentially of the American south and Texas that, if an outsider had written it, it would seem pandering or playing into stereotypes. But this is written by someone who is still a resident of the state, whose work has appeared in the Best American Travel Writing anthology (the piece that appeared there from his time covering the Congo for Harper's magazine, which is also the subject of his book All Things Must Fight to Live), and has been chosen for an Overseas Press Club Award Citation. And just as he can transport you to the places he writes about, he has the ability to transport you back in time and paint a vivid picture of the struggles of a family rising and falling with the fortunes of the land beneath them.
It was, at a critical time in his family and his state's history, land that was literally sold from beneath them by the bank to oil speculators. You see, Mealer's great grandaddy John Lewis owned 171 acres in Eastland. After the banker Frank Day gave John Lewis his word that he would watch over his farm while his great grandfather worked to get the $48.10 he owed on it, he instead bought it from the bank himself for that amount when oil was discovered nearby. With a boom on, he would lease that land for $40,000. Mealer sets the scene near the lost family farm as the family laid his great grandmother to rest (exactly where she was buried he's never been able to determine) shortly after they lose the farm. His grandfather Little Bob, the couple's seventh child, was just four-year's-old at the time:
I'm certain that in the wake of her burial they found themselves together at her grave, gazing helplessly at a mound of dirt. As the girls cried themselves out of breath, the rumble of oil traffic could be heard from the road. The trucks and mule teams plodded past under heavy loads of pipe and tools. Coming behind them with blaring horns were the shiny new Fords of the drillers and the newly rich farmers, their dead fields now painted black, their wheels bouncing onward into the dream. I imagine seeing this made my family burn with anger.
I haven't yet made my way past the midpoint of the book, but this family and its story already has its hooks in me. It is in part a social history of Texas and the industries that have dominated the state, but it has elements of the greatest fiction, mirroring the multigenerational epoch of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, and is written as elegantly as the greatest fiction. But this is a real story of a real family, the author's own, whose fortunes have hinged on things as small as a boll weevil, and as large as oil derrick. I can't wait to see where the story goes next.
If you'd like to read along with me, we have 20 copies available.