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By Scott Zesch (Kenya 1982–84)
Texas Christian University Press, $24.50

320 pages

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–66)

In Alamo Heights, Scott Zesch constructs an impressive story about a woman who risked reputation and family to save the Alamo from demolition and commercial development. Adina De Zavala, a Mexican-American activist, made The New York Times headlines in February, 1908. She barricaded herself in the convent building of the Alamo for three days to protest against real estate hounds who wanted to purchase the Alamo property, tear down the old buildings, and build a modern hotel and park.
     In Zesch’s novel, De Zavala becomes Rose De Leon Herrera, the wife of wimpish Antonio Herrera, a young lawyer terrified that his wife’s behavior might sour his reputation among San Antonio’s influential families. In real life, De Zavala received the support of author and wealthy socialite Clara Driscoll, who spent $75,000 to purchase the Alamo with the understanding that the state would then purchase it from her but grant custody for its upkeep to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. And the DRT has continued as worthy guardians to this day. In the novel, Driscoll becomes Alva Carson Keane, romance author and heir to the wealthy Carson spread near Laredo.
     In Zesch’s fictional account, these two women soar far beyond the prevailing politics with their compelling independence and feminist ideas. Rose drives around town in a 1904 Peerless touring car and publicly denounces city leaders for not preserving the famous Alamo. Alva’s stage shifts between the arid plains of her South Texas ranch and the glamour of her luxurious New York City residential hotel apartment where she is adapting her recent best-selling novel for Broadway. Although these two women may seem liberated, together they don’t equal one Mathilda Guenther, a sixty-something, free-living, free-loving, sculptor/painter who is sleeping with Rafael Menchaca, a rebellious mariachi who calls himself the “voice of the people.”
     Menchaca, the only male in the novel with the nerve to stand up to authority, is the father of Eva, a talented young sculptor in love with Rose’s son Enrique. Menchaca challenges Enrique when he learns that Enrique has been seeing Eva. Mercifully, Rose and Mathilda intervene. At first opposed to her son’s slumming, Rose’s attitude changes as she succumbs to Menchaca’s masculinity. Unfortunately, the outcome of the Rafael-Rose affair will forever be a mystery. Zesch ends the novel with Rose’s victory walk into the sun after her self-imposed exile locked in the room where her grandfather had died defending the Alamo.
     Zesch is to be admired for his courage in creating such strong female characters. None of the adult males are worthy role models. First, we have the humorless Antonio, the confused teenage son Enrique, and the rebel Rafael. Next we descend to the trio of antagonists, who are straight out of a cartoon: skirt-chasing, alcoholic, state Senator Hobo B. Pratt; “boot-licker” hotel developer Wilton Peck; and back-stabbing, real estate lawyer Horatio Frank.

Help from the sub-plots
What really saves this novel are the sub-plots that make for an enjoyable, albeit light read. For one, the history of the De Leons offers a colorful backdrop for a blockbuster historical romance. In fact, the Carson ranch once belonged to the De Leon clan. Rose’s father, a boozer and gambler, lost the ranch because he didn’t have forty-five dollars in cash to pay the annual taxes. Alva’s father agreed to finance a young lawyer’s first run for the state senate if he would interpret the tax law against De Leon. That lawyer was Hobo Pratt.
     Another issue left hanging at the end is whether Menchaca will chill out enough to settle down with Rose. It’s difficult to imagine Menchaca ever controlling his own desires long enough to settle down with any woman. On the other hand, it’s questionable whether Rose would ever convert to Menchaca’s religion of the masses. She might simply retreat into her safe middle-class background. Of course, at the end Antonio walks away from her.
     As is usually true with historical novels, I find it frustrating not being able to determine fact from fiction. If Adina De Zavala (Rose) was as stubborn and progressive as she sounds in the novel, then this story might have been better served as biography instead of fiction. As a glimpse into a little known but fascinating chapter of Texas history, Alamo Heights is well worth reading.

Teacher and poet Tony Zurlo lives in Texas.

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