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Defender of the Texas Frontier

Gross’ (A Mexican Adventure, 2017, etc.) latest historical novel traces the formation and adventures of the Texas Rangers during the Mexican War, under the leadership of a bold young man from Tennessee.

The narrative opens in 1836 with two adventure-seeking 19-year-olds, John Caperton and John Coffee “Jack” Hays, having drinks at a bar in Nacogdoches in the Republic of Texas. They’ve been friends since they were young boys learning how to “live rough” in Tennessee; now they’ve joined a volunteer force to fight the Mexican Army. Before they go, Big Al Cranston, the town bully, threatens to punch Jack for smiling, and Jack shoots the man dead before he can even throw a punch. Caperton acts as a narrator as Gross stitches together the events leading up to the Mexican War, highlighting Jack and an ensemble of real and imaginary characters. Readers tag along on a mission to Goliad to scout for enemy soldiers in advance of Gen. Thomas Jefferson Rusk’s army, and get an account of the Battle of Coleto, in which more than 400 Texan soldiers, after surrendering, are massacred by the Mexican army. Similar vignettes offer detailed descriptions of Comanche culture, military aggression, and diplomacy with other Native American nations. By 1845, when Texas applies for statehood, Jack’s regiment of scouts is known as Hays’ Texas Rangers and plays an important role in securing the Texas border during the battles at Painted Rock and Monterrey. Gross’ novel is loaded with intriguing period detail, such as how Comanche hunters use every part of a slain buffalo except the heart, which, as war chief Buffalo Hump explains, “is left to show the Creator of all things that our people are not greedy.” The plethora of names and locations detracts from the action and may occasionally leave readers confused about the time and place of particular events. Although the character development is minimal, except for Hays’, Gross’ descriptions consistently offer vivid imagery: “Our silent, measured, advance frustrated the war chief. He rode back and forth in front of his warriors, shouting at us.”

An engaging fictionalized review of the fight for Texas that should resonate with history buffs.

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David R. Gross’s dramatic retelling of a historical legend, Defender of the Texas Frontier, captures an era as it follows a young man’s rise to hero status.

Nineteen-year-old John Coffey Hays missed fighting in the battle for Texas’s independence. Full of vim and vigor, Hays joins up with a ranging patrol to defend the Texas border. So begins his storied career, which spans close to two decades. Along the way, Hays leads a ragtag group of men and forges an elite squad known as Rangers. Hays and his Rangers defend the US while skirmishing with both Mexicans and local native tribes. As his exploits become legend, Hays continues to affect change in Texas that ripples outward.

Hays’s story is entwined with the Texas Rangers’s origins. Known as the toughest and most judicious lawmen in history, the Rangers are shown starting out as a rough group, but becoming a power to be reckoned with. With strong attention to historical detail, the narrative shows how Hays learns and evolves while helping his men do likewise.

The book’s tone blends textbook dryness with drama and reads like an embellished historical document. The story unfolds through two primary perspectives: Hays’s, and that of his childhood friend, John. The focus shifts back and forth between the two, with highlights given to other important characters, too. These character transitions round out the narrative, allowing each character to give it their own touch. Hays’s commander and the commander of the tribal army are two of these: Hays’s commander comments on tactics, military prowess, and his personal life, while the tribal army commander highlights the respect between the Texans and the tribe as both defend their lands. It’s an interesting dichotomy that enriches the narrative.

Frequent dialogue tags are almost unnecessary because of the distinctiveness of the characters’ voices, whose subtle vocal tics make their discussions engaging and individualized: one character, despite being able to converse in fluent Spanish, speaks Spanish with a southern drawl, and words like “Mexicans” come out as “mesicans.”

This fictionalized version of Jack Hays uses key events from his life to build up the legend, enjoyably following him from his youth into his established adulthood. It is an artful take on Texas history.

Defender of the Texas Frontier fleshes out a Texas legend with aplomb, setting him in the midst of an engaging historical adventure.

JOHN M. MURRAY

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Reviewed By Ruffina Oserio for Readers’ Favorite

Defenders of the Southwest Frontier: A Historical Novel by David R. Gross is a fascinating, intriguing mix of fiction, fact, and heroism. This narrative plunges the reader back into an exciting historic moment to follow the life of one of the outstanding Rangers, John Coffey Hays and his role in defending Texas from raids by bands of Comanches and the Mexicans. He became a captain at the age of twenty-three and had some of the most powerful lieutenants, commanding great respect and following from other leaders in the stand to defend Texas. This is a story of inspiring leadership, spiced with romance and adventure. The narrative features historical figures like William Wallace “aka” Bigfoot, Ben McCulloch, and many others. 

David R. Gross does an impeccable job with the setting, allowing readers vivid glimpses of life in Texas in the first half of the 19th century. It was a period in which the revolver was just being discovered and it played a significant role in guerrilla warfare. The characters are well explored and written, ingeniously fleshed out with sufficient backstory to make them rock solid and compelling. The strength of this novel lies in the author’s gift for setting and his ability to allow history to speak through the narrative. There is a lot of telling and explanations that can be distracting to readers who are keen on the “show not tell” technique, but the narrative is confident and this author follows his unique narrative voice. Defenders of the Southwest Frontier: A Historical Novel is action-packed and intense, a tale of courage and bravery, a tale that isn’t lacking when it comes to surprises and unexpected turns.

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