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Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Yellow Rose of Texas

As most people know “The Yellow Rose of Texas” is a famous song that appeared soon after the Battle of San Jacinto during the Texas Revolution. Most people don’t know that the song was written about a young part black woman (the word used back then was “mulatta”) named Emily West (or Emily Morgan) who became famous during the Battle of San Jacinto in which Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was defeated and taken captive. The lyrics most of us are familiar with go as follows: “She’s the sweetest little rosebud,/ That Texas ever knew,/ Her eyes are bright as diamonds,/ They sparkle like the dew,/ You may talk about your Clementine/ and sing of Rosalee,/ But the Yellow Rose of Texas/ is the only girl for me!”

These are the original lyrics, which appeared soon after the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836: “There’s a yellow rose in Texas/ That I am going to see/ No other darky know her/ No one only me/ She cryed so when I left her/ It like to broke my heart/ And if I ever find her/ We nevermore will part. (Chorus): She’s the sweetest rose of color/ This darky ever knew/ Her eyes are bright as/ diamonds/ They sparkle like the dew/ You may talk about dearest May/ and sing of Rosa Lee/ But the yellow rose of Texas/ Beats the belles of Tennessee.”

Shannon Richardson’s takes the known outline of Ms. West’s life and develops it as a novel. What is the “real story” of Emily West’s life? No one knows. But the outlines are there, and these Ms. Richardson develops into a novel that is both interesting and at times harrowing. Emily Richardson comes across as a strong, compassionate young woman who will not be trifled with and who values her relative freedom in Texas.

One of the details that is known about her life that Ms. Richardson is that General Santa Anna captured her and kept her as his servant before the battle in which he was taken captive and his army defeated. Did they have a sexual connection? Knowing his history as a world class womanizer who liked young, sexy women, it is likely. As vain, self-centered and arrogant as he was, I have difficulty imagining her taking any kind of interest in him at all, so I had difficulty imagining her feeling love for him as she does in the novel. As a love interest, I am very skeptical of it, because nowhere in the novel is she depicted as being naïve and available; it just doesn’t work for me.

Santa Anna, on the other hand, is portrayed pretty much as he is in history: as pompous, vainglorious, cruel, vindictive, untrustworthy and at times incredibly stupid in his military decisions (the Battle of San Jacinto being one of the most prominent of his errors in judgment). Ms. Richardson takes one liberty with his history that doesn’t work because I’ve never been able to find any evidence for it, and that is that he was born in New York near West Point, was half Indian, that he ran away to Mexico to avoid persecution for a killing and was adopted by the couple whom history records as his parents. It’s an interesting story, but just not necessary, especially when it contradicts history and isn’t necessary to the story anyway, since he lived in exile on Staten Island for a time when he was seventy-four.

As a novel, I found The Yellow Rose of Texas an interesting and a pretty enjoyable read except for the few caveats I’ve mentioned above. I think her Blood Moon: The Casino Murders, which I recently reviewed, a much better book.

My rating of Yellow Rose is a strong ***.

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